All posts by Aleksei

Life after the trip

3 years, 3 months and 3 days. That was the length of my incredible trip. Yes, I can apply all the superlatives without hesitation. The adventure of a lifetime. A life-changing experience. An incredible learning opportunity. All of this is true.

Is there life after the trip?

People often tell me that the adjustment after such a journey must be really hard. I didn’t feel this way. Even for a free spirit, being on the road for three years makes you appreciate some stability. I couldn’t possibly describe what a joy it is not to have to pack your bag yet again after a couple of days in your apartment.

I also grew to miss work. Surprising as it may sound, work is a source of meaning. I could have continued travelling as there was no immediate financial pressure to return. But I felt like it was time.

How to summarise this trip? 70 countries, 5 continents, a full circle around the world and then some. Slept in innumerable hotel, hostel, apartment, B&B, AirBnB beds, took a ridiculous number of planes, buses, ships, and trains, met an endless variety of people. So many events have taken place, it feels like a whole lifetime of experiences. Those who know me won’t be surprised – I of course kept a list of all the decisively new experiences that I tried. It goes from sky diving to a meditation course, though some items cannot be disclosed. By the end of the trip, there were at least 58 positions.

There are two major changes. Work feels different. And travel feels different.

Once you’ve been to so many places, and not just “been”, but spent quite a while in them, a month here, several months there, every place feels like home. And no place feels like home. I am never lost or awed or even really disoriented anywhere. And yet I don’t feel a particular attachment to any place.

The work on the other hand feels a lot more rewarding. This is what I keep repeating to my director – work is a reward. In the past it felt like a duty. Now it feels like an opportunity to apply myself. Quite a difference. Also the nature of my work has changed, and I feel lucky about it.

And nobody said I have to stop travelling! For example, this year I’ve already spent time travelling in…

US Deep South,


South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho,

Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan,

and Switzerland,

not even mentioning minor trips like a weekend here and there!

I am writing this in sunny Bern, the capital of the Swiss Confederation. What a great place to be!

The giant surprise of Haiti: Citadelle Laferrière and Sans Souci palace

An incredible giant fortress was built by the freed slaves for the Black King at the top of a mountain chain to fight back the return of Napoleon. Sounds like an alternative history novel? And yet it’s true. Citadelle Laferrière is located just 30 kilometres to the South of Cap-Haïtien. More than that: at the bottom of the mountain a black Versailles stands in ruins, a large sophisticated palace that was conceived by the black king as the centre of the administration of the newly built black kingdom.

This double attraction is the pride of Haiti and its main tourist sight. Inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage list, it is no doubt the most surprising and most impressive fortress built in the Western hemisphere after the “discovery” of America by Columbus. As I wandered around it, I was struggling to comprehend how the slaves that had just gained their freedom could built such a miracle of architecture in the middle of a country destroyed by the civil war? How an idea this brave could be born, what was the key to its methodical implementation?

Clearly, when this fortress was built, when the kingdom of Henri-Christophe just came into existence, the whole history of the world must have appeared very different, and the future too held a very different promise. It was the time when the United States had just been born, the French Revolution had just taken place. The reactionary forces had not yet suffocated the new growths of freedom in Europe. And Africa was not yet divided between colonial empires like a multi-coloured carpet. At that time anyone could be forgiven for thinking that freedom and self-sufficiency were within reach for any hopeful new country.

This is a video I made in Citadelle Laferrière. From its top levels I could see an incredible panorama of Haitian mountains descending towards the Atlantic in the distance. I added a song “Ayiti leve” from an album of Haitian music given to me by a friend long time ago. “Ayiti leve” in Creole means “Get up, Haiti!”

Continue reading The giant surprise of Haiti: Citadelle Laferrière and Sans Souci palace

Cap-Haïtien, once the Paris of the Antilles, and what’s left of it

Cap-Haïtien today is Haiti’s second most important city. However throughout the colonial times Cap-Haïtien was the capital of the French colony Saint-Domingue. And it was not simply a capital. It was the most luxurious city in all of the Caribbean, full of sophisticated buildings and decadent villas. In those days it was called Cap-Français and it was referred to as the Paris of the Antilles.

The secret of all this glory was that the French came up with the most efficient system of mass production of sugar cane of them all. As a result, Saint-Domigue was the richest colony in all of the New World. The rest of the colonisers looked at Saint-Domingue with envy and tried to copy its methods in their own territories.

However these incredible riches were built on two unsustainable factors. Firstly, the system required inhuman exploitation of black slaves. Several tens of thousands of white slaveowners used sadistic methods to enforce the backbreaking work of millions of black slaves. Secondly, the system irrevocably destroyed another resource – the soils that cover most of hilly Haitian countryside. These soils accumulated over thousands of years and were only sustained due to the forests that prevented the erosion from rain and wind. As these forests were cut down to make way for plantations, a quick and irreversible soil erosion followed. Today forests are only 5% of Haiti’s territory which was once all forest. The fertile soils are almost completely gone. This is the inheritance left to Haiti by the colonisers. Yet another inheritance is the “debt” of 90 million golden francs that Haiti would pay back to the French all the way to 1947. (Absurdly, some former French colonies in Africa are paying analogous “debt” to France to this day.)

The rare visitors to Cap often note how badly Haitians take care of their architectural heritage. They forget an important detail – Cap-Haitien was entirely destroyed in 1802 in the course of the liberation war with the French. All the buildings here were built after Haitian independence.

The city is indeed very beautiful and picturesque and obviously in bad condition. The taptap from Ouanaminthe let us out on the outskirts of the city where mototaxis were already waiting. Luckily I had exchanged some dollars to the local gourdes at the border, so I could negotiate in the local currency – and quickly agreed to be taken to my hotel for 50 gourdes (1 dollars). (In fact even that was too expensive.) This is how this and many other trips by mototaxi looked – it’s by far the most operational way to go around Haiti’s towns!

Continue reading Cap-Haïtien, once the Paris of the Antilles, and what’s left of it

How I finally got to Haiti: adventures on the border and what is taptap

Don’t be surprised – I’m NOT in Haiti right now! I decided to write a few posts about most amazing travel experiences during this last half-a-year – since the time I updated the blog regularly. A kind of a “Greatest Hits”. They will pop up in a kind of random order. First off – the most exotic of all – HAITI!

A visit to Haiti was in my sights already during my first visit to Santo Domingo. That time I couldn’t make it – despite trying numerous times to buy a bus ticket to Port-au-Prince. There was always a reason – the office of the only bus company that plies the route was unexplicably closed; or they wouldn’t have tickets; or the border was closed and the bus was cancelled – “Huelga!” shouted at me a black saleswoman when I inquired about the reasons.

And yet I was irresistibly drawn by Haiti – it felt like a truly weird place, wild, chaotic, exotic and unknown, a perfect candidate to broaden my own travelling horizons. Haiti is unique as the only country in the history of the world where a slave insurrection has been victorious and has led to independence. The slaves managed to defeat the troops sent by Napoleon himself!

Unfortunately, their hardwon freedom has not resulted in exemplary prosperity. The slave republic has long been an outcast in the world affairs, shunned by all of its colonial neighbours and even forced to pay absurd reparations to its former colonial master, France. In the 20th century constant meddling by the Americans guaranteed no sane leader could remain long in his position, whereas the terrible Duvalier dynasty had a free reign to terrorise the population for decades as long as they played ball with the United States. As if that wasn’t enough, an horrific earthquake struck Port-au-Prince in 2010. Today Haiti, while trying to rebuild itself, remains the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

So how did I make it there? I changed my tactics and decided to go to Haiti from Santiago de los Caballeros (DR’s second city) instead of Santo Domingo. As I flew to Santiago from Puerto Rico, first thing I did was visit the office of Caribe Tours that was supposed to sell tickets to Cap-Haïtien, Haiti’s second city. That office was a windowless room hidden somewhere in the back of an out-of-town bus station in Santiago. A lone black man sat in the windowless room. As I switched from Spanish to French, his facial expression changed immediately as if he decided that my request to buy a ticket was not a joke. He sold me a bus ticket for the following morning. I didn’t reveal my excitement, knowing how nothing is set in stone when it comes to Haiti.

The following morning I was waiting in the station and – surprise, surprise – the bus arrived almost on time and off we went to Cap-Haitien. To make it all easier for myself, I left my large luggage bag in a hotel in Santiago and only took a small rucksack with me. Each and every passenger in the bus besides myself was black, with one notable exception: a crazy guy from South Korea who didn’t even speak any of the local languages – not Spanish and not French (not even mentioning Creole). Of course we started talking (in English) and it turned out he had also been to more than 100 countries. We did have a lot to discuss, especially considering that his travel collection was very different from mine – he’d been to a lot fo countries in Africa for example.

And yet Haiti did show it’s character. Let me explain. As we were approaching the border, all of a sudden a strange commotion set in inside the bus. A loud discussion turned into an argument turned into a shouting match – in Creole. Finally I managed to grab the travel hostess (yes, these buses feature a hostess who welcomes you on board, serves lunch, and is theoretically responsible for all border formalities). The hostess declared to me that the bus will not go further. Why??? The border is closed. Somebody has been killed and the police has closed the border bridge. The bus goes back to Santiago!!! However, if you want, you can cross the border on foot. And then organise your own transport to Cap-Haitien.

I think something in me already expected something like this. Otherwise why would I have taken only a rucksack with me? So I translated all this story to the South Korean, we looked at each other for a split second and of course decided that we would cross the border on foot. To her credit, the hostess took us in tow and took care of us in the immigration departments of the two countries. On this pic you can see as she leads the way to the Haitian immigration. She is second from left.

Continue reading How I finally got to Haiti: adventures on the border and what is taptap

The last island of the Antilles: Grenada

On the last day of our cruise the crew organised a “meeting with the captain”. It was a truly fascinating hour during which the captain, his first mate and a third officer answered all kinds of questions from the audience. For example we learnt that our ship (“Jewel of the Seas”) does not all the time travel in circle in the Caribbean from Puerto Rico to Puerto Rico. Rather, depending on the season the ship will go to different corners from the world. In summer it’s in Alaska, in the fall it’s in the Mediterranean, at some point it even goes to South East Asia. When asked which of the places on the itinerary were his favourites, the captain to my surprise said it was Grenada.

Grenada is the last, i.e. Southernmost island in the Antilles archipelago. Further South is South America with its satellite islands.

Grenada is marketed as the Spice Island due to a huge choice of spices available here. As for me, I knew it mostly as the island which was attacked by Ronald Reagan.

Continue reading The last island of the Antilles: Grenada

Saint Lucia, the most authentic of the Caribbean islands

Saint Lucia is rightly considered the most authentic of all the Caribbean islands. Thanks to its population, climate, location and history it has preserved a particular character. Even though it is not the most isolated island and gets its share of visitors, most of it is nevertheless difficult to access and its population 174 thousand is sufficiently large to withstand the sea of tourists.

Saint Lucia was nicknamed the Helen of West Indies due to the fact that no other island changed hands so many times – no less than 14 times it was traded back and forth between the French and the British. Paradoxically, the last military conflict here was won by the French – and yet it was the Brits who stuck with Saint Lucia, thanks to a peace deal signed in faraway Europe. Today Saint Lucia is part of the Commonwealth and the head of state here is the British queen. And yet many of the local names in Saint Lucia are French, starting with the capital, Castries, which is named a French marquess. The locals pronounce it in English manner though, with the stress on the first syllable and without omitting the final “s” as you would in French.

Saint Lucia is remarkable for the fact that it happens to have the most Nobel prize winners per capita! As many as TWO islanders have won the prize – writer Derek Walcott and economist Arthur Lewis. By a strange coincidence both were born on the same day, 23 January.

As for me, it was particularly sweet to visit Saint Lucia as it was my 100th independent country. To reach 100 visited countries was one of my goals for 2015. Done!

Continue reading Saint Lucia, the most authentic of the Caribbean islands

Colourful decay of overseas France: Martinique

Of the five islands on the route of our cruise, Martinique was the largest (population over 400 thousand) and most important in history and economics. On the other hand, unlike Antigua and others, it is not independent. Quite the opposite – it’s a department of the French Republic formally equal in rights and obligations to any other department. It does have an additional special status – département d’outre-mer, or DOM – which means “overseas department” in French. Among other things, it allows Martinique to benefit from rather substantial EU grants.

France keeps a whole laundry list of various tiny territories all over the world – remains of the former giant colonial empire. The French constitution groups them in various clusters, some of which overlap. This complex system was previously referred to as DOM-TOM (“overseas departments and territories”), but following recent reforms this abbreviation has become obsolete – now it would be DROM-COM, though in the corridors the old way is still used.

Welcome to this shard of France stuck in the middle of the Caribbean! Liberté égalité fraternité say hello!

Continue reading Colourful decay of overseas France: Martinique

Blotch of Antigua with its 365 beaches of eternal sun

Antigua and Barbuda was the first “independent” country that we visited on our cruise. I put “independent” in reversed quotes for the simple reason that in the Caribbean the notion of independence is very relative. In many ways the island mini-states here are closely tied to their former colonial masters, and their very economy is such that it’s built around visitors and the vast majority of consumed goods are imported. And yet formally Antigua and Barbuda is perfectly independent. The total population of this country is 80 thousand people, 98% of which live on the larger of the two islands – Antigua. Antigua plays the role of a transport node of the Caribbean – even though there are only cursory regular airplane connections between the various islands, the flights that exist tend to all connect right here in Antigua airport.

But the main treasure of Antigua are surely its beaches. They say there are 365 of them – one for each day of the year! It’s a kind of a long tale, of course, and yet it highlights the fact that virtually of all of the island’s shoreline is one endless beach. From above Antigua looks like a huge blotch of ink delineated from everywhere by virtually uninterrupted beaches. With our cruise ship acquaintance we headed to his favourite beach in the North of the island.

Continue reading Blotch of Antigua with its 365 beaches of eternal sun

A Denmark in the Antilles: Charlotte-Amalie of the US Virgin Islands

The title of being the busiest cruise port for the Caribbean goes to Miami. In seven days though the cruises from Miami can only reach Puerto Rico and the Virgin islands and return – it is too far to go to the rest of the Antilles. San Juan is the second most popular cruise ship port, and its georgraphical location allows to reach within seven days any point in the Caribbean. As a rule, the cruising companies plan the route in such a way that on five days of the cruise the ship is in port in various points of the Antilles and the sixth day is fully at sea. In our case the day at sea was the last day as we sailed all the way from Grenada (the last island in the Antilles chain) to Puerto Rico. We sailed with Royal Caribbean, and its cruises are such that the same ship never plies the same route – every week the route is somewhat different in terms of the islands visited, but always returning to Puerto Rico. There is one port however that is on almost every itinerary – that’s Charlotte-Amalie on the island of Saint Thomas, one of the American Virgin islands.

Actually we didn’t even notice how the ship left Puerto Rico. It was dark and we were dining and suddenly we realised that through we no longer see through the windows the evening lights of San Juan. Rather it was the darkness of the open ocean as we were sailing past it at a good speed. Waking up the next morning and looking out the window, it was an “It ain’t Kansas, Toto!” moment. It was clearly not Puerto Rico, this tropical island down below.

Continue reading A Denmark in the Antilles: Charlotte-Amalie of the US Virgin Islands

Puerto Rico: Strange Spanish-speaking United States

The United States owns a few strange territories whose status has never been clearly defined. Some call them colonies, and this is indeed what they were initially. Nowadays the formal designation is “unincorporated territory”. As the US formed, there were lots of these – indeed virtually all the states except the original thirteen passed through the various “unincorporated” stages. However eventually most of them reached statehood – although for some it took a long and determined fight, such as for Hawaii, which only became a state in 1959. No new states have been created since then, and so Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa and a few others remained “in the air”.

Puerto Rico is officially referred to as a “commonwealth”. The population of the commonwealth by now exceeds that of many states. To be fair, Puerto Ricans themselves are not decided about what they want to be. The three options being eternally debated are independence, statehood and status quo. Puerto Ricans enjoy most of the rights of US citizens, with the exception of being able to vote for President and to elect Senators. As a candidate, Obama supported the idea of conducting a referendum to set the final status. However in order to approve such a referendum, the agreement of U.S. Congress is necessary – and that’s missing.

Much like Hawaii, Puerto Rico receives large subsidies from the mainland. Its special status also allows it to create a special business and tax regime, and as a result most pharmaceuticals made in USA are produced right here on the island. Obviously lots of American tourists come here as well and support the local economy with their dollars.

Everybody speaks Spanish in San Juan, and so you get a strange feeling of walking around Spanish-speaking United States. I guess in 20 years California and Texas will feel similar (parts of Miami and New York already do). The currency is the dollar and the prices are very American too – feels very different compared to Colombia, where I’d been just prior. On per capita basis, Puerto Rico is poorer than the poorest U.S. state (Mississippi), however it’s richer than any Latin American country.

San Juan from the air. Old San Juan is the peninsula in the centre of the image.

Continue reading Puerto Rico: Strange Spanish-speaking United States