All posts by Aleksei

Nassau – the capital of pirates, cruise ships and conches

It takes only 55 minutes to fly from Miami to Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, but the actual flight time is unpredictable – Bahamas Air is famous for being always late. It didn’t disappoint, though the delay in my case was only one hour. Indeed the flight was announced as “on time” until the moment of boarding, notwithstanding the pesky watches and their nonsense. Everyone participating in this performance – the passengers, the flight attendants, the airport personnel – kept a complete and solemn calm, walking around as if on a beach promenade in Cannes.

Most Bahamians are black, as you would realise boarding my flight. The Bahamas is not a poor country though – on the contrary, prices in Nassau are very substantial, and hotels in mid-price category are nowhere in sight. They’re actually near impossible to find! Eventually I discovered a guesthouse kept by an elderly Greek couple that cannot be booked online – you can only call and shout for half an hour hoping that they’ll finally hear you and note your arrival! But it was a nice and homey place.

Nassau lives to the rhythm of the cruise ship. A giant vessel or two enters port every day, and for the hours it’s there Nassau is like an ant mound, its Main Street shops are full of tourists, restaurants serve kilograms of overpriced American fare to American visitors, museums are open and the town lives. As night falls and the ship leaves port, all of a sudden a silence reigns, everything appears closed, and a rare empty restaurant boasts of one or two visitors at most.

The main sight of Nassau is probably the Pirate Museum.

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Taking stock of one mad trip

It is often like that with travel. You feel somewhere between amused and bored as you wander around a strange faraway destination. And yet as you look back at that moment just a couple of months later from another place thousands of kilometres away, the very fact of having physically occupied a small piece of the Earth out there seems surreal.

That is how I feel now that I am back in Europe, as I look back at my trip around Latin America and the Caribbean. So many places discovered, so many new (and old) people met, so many impressions and events… and all of that in such a short timespan!

Sometimes I think back about my days before this crazy two-year-long trip and it feels to me as if all of it was in another life. I have changed so much, experienced so much and learnt so much. And simply time-wise it feels like a temporal abyss separates me from that day in 2013 when I left Brussels.

Certainly it was the most intense period of my life.

As for you, my dear blog, I must apologise to you that I haven’t spent much time with you in these last months. You are probably well and truly upset with me. Yes, other causes have consumed my energy. I could probably write 25 posts about all the places I visited during that time. And in the back of my mind I still have that idea, that need – to write about these places. Now that I will not write about them day to day, it will be a retrospective look. But how surreal and magical it feels to take that look.
Looking down at Minsk

The oldest city in the Americas: Santo Domingo

Actually it’s been two months since I left Asia and arrived in Central America. Very intense time indeed, lots of places visited, people met, photos taken. While changing planes in Brussels, I accidentally bumped into my former colleagues from Unit R1 who were going on an audit mission. Talk about coincidences! But it was a fascinating moment, to suddenly imagine how it would feel to be back, and of course to get an update of all the interesting developments.

Right now I am in Costa Rica. However my trip around Central America started in the Dominican Republic. I took a flight from Brussels to Santo Domingo, the little-visited capital. Which happens to be the oldest city in the Americas. Columbus himself was a governor, as were his brother and his son Diego. This is where the Spanish conquest of the Americas was planned and executed: the expeditions to Mexico, Central America and further South all started here. Due to the wind pattern in the Atlantic Santo Domingo was an obligatory stop for sailing ships both on the way from Europe and on the way back. Santo Domingo lost its importance after Sir Francis Drake, at the time a British-sponsored pirate, took it and looted it thoroughly in 1583. The centre of gravity of the Spanish Americas moved irreversibly towards the continent.

Yes, by the way, if you ever wondered where the name of the Dominican Republic comes from – very easy! The Republic is named after the capital city, and the capital city takes its name from the Catholic saint – and the founder of the monastic order which used to be rather powerful here.

The Columbus park is the heart of the colonial town – Zona Colonial, as it’s known here.

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In the tragic oil kingdom of Kuwait

Welcome to the city state of Kuwait! Kuwait is quite unlike the rest of the Gulf states. To start with, Kuwait is the richest of them all. In terms of oil reserves per capital, it beats even the almighty Saudi Arabia. My local acquaintance boasted that it’s enough to stick a finger in the ground and the oil will come gushing out. On the other hand, Kuwait was the epicentre of a still recent and still painful national tragedy. The invasion by the troops of Saddam Hussein in 1991 has shaped the national character. A whole generation of young men was eliminated. Kuwait City (and there isn’t anything else in Kuwait, the rest is an empty desert punctuated by oil wells) was utterly destroyed, looted, burnt by the retreating Iraqis, when the overwhelming might of the coalition forced them to flee Kuwait.

But in the case of Kuwait there is no ostensible hyper compensation. The Kuwait City centre is strictly functional, there are no new eye catching buildings that you would expect from a country risen from the ashes. Obviously this is not a question of money. Rather it is the conservative culture that prescribes focusing on the private space, hiding all wealth from jealous eyes of an outsider. Only recently the government took a decision to build a proper national museum and to renovate the Kuwait Towers – more on that later.

The first glimpse of Kuwait from a plane window:

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Greater Muscat

Most cities go around in concentric circles. Muscat, the capital of Oman, is quite different. Being built in the valleys hidden between the coastal rocks, it stretches on and off along the coast for some 30 km, forming in the process the Greater Muscat.

And surely the most important concentration of the urban activity is in the souk, a covered market, which is located right next to the Mutrah port of Muscat. The souk has several entrances. This is the parade entrance, from the Mutrah waterfront:

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Old Muscat, the fairytale capital of Oman


The very name of this exotic sultanate has always seemed an epitome of fairytale. Closed off to all visitors for so long, it seemed to hold endless secrets somewhere among the shifting sands of Arabia. Visiting it seemed an impossible feat, like going into a fairytale. Little did I know…

Oman was not always a hermit of nations. In 17-18th centuries the Sultanate of Oman was a dominant seafaring empire which controlled the Indian Ocean and possessed a network outposts in an arch stretching from Mozambique all the way to India. Oman successfully held off and defeated the Portuguese and only in 19th century did the British and the French gradually subdue it. In Arabia only the Oman’s ruler is titled “sultan” – which is the most important title in the East. (The king of Saudi Arabia does call himself “the guardian of Mecca and Medina”, which is more prestigious from the religious point of view, the word “king” used to translate it into Western languages being a kind of a misnomer.) Moreover, the Oman’s dynasty is by far the oldest of the Gulf dynasties. Thus when the Arab rulers gather, the sultan of Oman possesses a special weight among them – rather like the sultan of Brunei among the Muslim rulers of South East Asia. In the case of Oman though the historic importance is not supported by economic might – among the Gulf states Oman has long been the poorest, endowed with the least oil. Yemen is poorer still but it’s not in the Gulf. In recent times Oman has embarked on an energised development track, to a great extent inspired by the current sultan Qaboos, a unique figure.

I had considered flying to Oman from Dubai or combining it with Bahrain or Kuwait on a sort of an air triangle. Soon I realised that it was not worth it price-wise, and then I came across information that Dubai is connected to Oman by a regular bus! Which is ridiculously cheap – about 10 euros. Actually taking a physical bus seemed a lot more interesting too. And so I did -not with some difficulties, as the office of the Oman’s company that provides the link is well hidden in Dubai’s Deira, and there is no bus station as such. Soon though I find myself on the bus wondering if the border guards in Oman are aware of the new rules freeing me from the visa requirement?

No problem at all! Crossing the border was quick as a flash. The bus did have to stop three times, with intervals of several kilometres – first on the UAE border, then Oman border guard, then the Oman customs. On the last stop all the bags had to be removed from the bus and lined up for a friendly dog to sniff. Last time I went through such an old fashioned check was in Paraguay customs as I took an endless bus over Chaco from Bolivia.

The bus reaches Muscat about 10pm at night. The smartphones have transformed the way we travel – as I’d downloaded a map of Muscat, even in the dark of the night I easily found my hotel, which was some 20 minutes walk from the bus stop. The next morning a set off for a walk around Old Muscat.

The geography of Muscat is rather extraordinary. The capital of Oman is built on the ocean coast among the hills. The hills separate it into many valleys which historically used to be separate settlements, and to get from one to the other you need to drive several km. Therefore Muscat stretches along the coast for some 30 km. Its major areas are Old Muscat, Mutrah, Ruwi and Qurm. The sultan lives in Old Muscat, surrounded by fortresses, museums and administrative buildings, but no hotels are located there. The hotels are either in the business centre of Ruwi, the touristic and port centre of Mutrah or in posh expat area of Qurm. I stayed in a middle range Mutrah Hotel about midway between Ruwi and Mutrah.

On my first morning in Muscat I passed through the old souk to the Mutrah Corniche. First sighting of the sea:

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Non-standard Dubai

Dubai is such an intense place with so much going on that in my mind I was certain – I would be surprised. I would find things that lie outside of the stereotypes of megalomania and shopping. I just had to keep my eyes open and they would come.

Probably the most unexpected find turned out to be an incredible richness and variety of contemporary art galleries. I’d read about at least two clusters of galleries – one in the industrial Al Quoz area close to Noor Bank metro stop; the other in the Dubai International Financial Center area (metro Emirates Towers).

I started in Al Quoz, from its most well known gallery called Courtyard. The eponymous courtyard is surrounded by a whole series of galleries. The main gallery and the passage to the courtyard:

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Standard Dubai

I decided to write two posts about Dubai: one post about the “standard Dubai”, the one which everybody imagines, and the other about the “non-standard Dubai”, the Dubai which we least expect.

Even though I am such an experienced traveller, strangely I’d never been to Dubai before. The obvious reason is that before spring of 2014 I needed a visa to enter Dubai which was expensive and bureaucratically difficult to obtain. I had a hunch that soon enough this would change and so it did.

Most tourists are drawn to Dubai for two major reasons: shopping and beaches. As for me, none of this was of any interest. Rather I wanted to experience for myself that paradoxical contemporary miracle, an urban mirage built in the middle of the desert. My expectations were pretty low: I imagined a society torn between the ultrarich locals and the slave-like migrant workers, between modernity and fundamentalism, a tasteless mix of extreme consumption.

Dubai exceeded my expectations. Yes indeed it’s a mirage willed into existence by the imagination and self-confidence of its rulers. The mirage that shook all the surrounding rulers and spurred them into copying it. Actually the emirate of Dubai is a rather small piece of land, the lion’s part of UAE being occupied by Abu Dhabi. The same goes for oil: Dubai has practically run out of it by now. And yet its emirs managed to get the most of out their small territory. Today it is an incredible futuristic ensemble that will leave no one unimpressed.

So let’s get it on. Standard Dubai! Burj Khalifa – the tallest building in the world. Simply dwarfing the surrounding skyscrapers:

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Bahrain, the key to the Gulf

December for me was the month of the Middle East. It started from the (re)discovery of the Turkish low cost airline Pegasus Airlines. I’d already flown them before, yet somehow never considered it as a workable option – and for any movements around the Middle East, it is certainly a great one. It is in the same price category as Ryanair, however it is much more human in the way it is organised and treats its passengers. This time I used it to the limit. The ticket from Brussels to Bahrain changing planes in Istanbul cost me around €100 – and it is quite a distance, almost half the world! Playing around with their website produces quite amazing options. An important advantage is that they have a base in the Sabiha Gökcen airport in Istanbul, which is linked with a strong network of frequent flights with all kinds of destinations, allowing a convenient way to connect very unusual points. For example you could fly from Skopje to Kutaisi or as I did, from Brussels to Bahrain – all for a very reasonable amount.

As I departed from Bahrain, my knowledge of this country was rather limited. I initially envisaged heading for Dubai, and I added Bahrain only when I realised that I could easily visit one more country in combination with the Emirates. For the holders of Estonian passport like myself there was a mini-diplomatic breakthrough in the beginning of 2014 – at that time almost all of the Gulf countries changed the entry rules for the “new” EU countries, making the entrance either visa-free or visa-on-arrival. I’d read in the press about the changes introduced by the UAE, but as I was checking the visa rules, suddenly I realised that Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait had followed suit! And only Qatar is lagging behind. I did try to include Qatar this time around, by applying for its visa the old fashioned way, but the procedure turned out to be quite kafkaesque without any clear rules or deadlines – and so I dropped it. My guess is that their visa rules will change soon too.

In a paradoxical way Bahrain is just the right country to start your Gulf visit. The whole history of the Gulf in a way starts right here, on this tiny island. We’ve all heard of the great Mesopotamian civilisation. The great epic poem of that civilisation was the famous Epos of Gilgamesh, in which King Gilgamesh among many other things visits the fairytale land of Dilmun, a paradise on Earth and the source of eternal life. The prototype for the mythical Dilmun was the island of Bahrain. At the time – we’re talking 5000 years ago – it was the economic centre of the whole Arabic peninsula, thanks to its location at the crossroads of trade routes.

This favourable location was at the same time its undoing. Being at the crossroads of the empires, it changed hands between them innumerable times. To this day it is an apple of discord between Iran and the Arabs. Iran considers Bahrain its property and supports the local majority Shiite population, which protested very loudly against the ruling Sunni elite during the Arab Spring. As the Emir of Bahrain is a close ally of both Saudi Arabia and USA, the protests were put down by force and their spacial focus, the so-called Pearl Roundabout, a local equivalent of the Cairo’s Tahrir Square, was destroyed with bulldozers.

Bahrain is the key detail in the big puzzle of the Gulf, due to the fact that it is the base of the American Fifth fleet. Whenever an American aircraft carrier parades along the coast of Iran, it is in Bahrain that it will dock.

The Gulf starts out of Bahrain in one other key aspect. In the old days it was the economic centre of the Gulf due to it being at the centre of the pearl trade. Cartier would buy his pearls right here in 1920s. The pearl trade in the Gulf collapsed in 1930s after the invention of cultured pearl farming in Japan. And then Bahrain gave the Gulf yet another gift of immense wealth. It was right here that the oil was found and the first oil well in the Gulf was dug in 1932.

My plane landed in Manama at 3am at night. It turned out the visa free regime is not quite visa free – I had to buy a visa, and it seemed the cost was at the mercy of the immigration worker – each new visitor would be quoted a different amount. I had arranged an airport pickup with my hotel, although my actual reservation allowed me to check in only at 14:00. I wasn’t sure the plane would be on time, and so decided I’d wait in the lobby working at the computer. This didn’t quite go according to the plan – the hotel manager just could not tolerate a guest sitting all night long in his lobby. When I opted not to pay for an additional night, he checked me in for free at 7:00. If only all hotels managers in the world were as welcoming! I therefore heartily recommend the Bahrain Ramada hotel. My first look out the hotel window, which seemed very exotic on that first morning:

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Best photos

This week I allocated one full day in order go to through all the images I’ve ever made and pick out the best ones. My actual goal was to create a portfolio of best images. I’d already started this work before as I had identified all the best portraits and even asked for feedback from critically and artsy minded friends. When you do the selection yourself, the challenge is of course to abstract yourself from your memories of making the photos – memories about the person, about the shoot, about your mood, your conscious creative choices – and only concentrate on the merits of the image itself. Not an easy thing to do. Of course you also want to have a certain variety in the selection – if all your best photos come from the same situation, that looks iffy.

To go through all of your images sounds like an easy task in theory, but in practice it is anything but. From my DSLR cameras alone I have by now over 35’000 images. Indeed even visually to go through all this on a computer screen, assuming you take 3 seconds per image, would take 29 hours. So I took shortcuts: I’d only look at the very best images, the ones I’ve already published on the blog or the ones that I’d given a high rating in Lightroom.

The result is out there – I’ve created two “portfolio” collections: People and Places.

As a side project, I decided to also choose (somewhat arbitrarily, of course) the best ten images for 2014. Just as a way of looking back and of gauging my progress in photography. Here they are:

Singapore, Marina Bay
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