Agadez – Sweating in A Not So Sleepy Desert Town

After only ten minutes in Agadez, we were ready to leave. We had just gotten off an eight-hour journey in a steaming bus, chock-full of people with “interesting” body odors. Outside, the scorching desert air hit us like a hot wall, so we quickly checked into the only hotel still open to tourists. But when we turned the faucet to take a refreshing bath, there was a hissing sound, but not a single drop. No water? Panic! This place was not only hot as hell, this was hell.

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But there was air-conditioning in our room in the ancient mud-made hotel, and it’s incredible what a difference a drop in temperature can make. After cooling down, and bathing with water from a bucket, things didn’t seem so bad. So we stayed.

Agadez used to be the main tourist destination in Niger. People would arrive by truckloads (and direct flights from France) to visit the Teneré Desert, the Aïr Mountains, and to see the male beauty contest during the annual Cure Salée festival in nearby In-Gall. But in the last three years, the Tuareg rebellion has put a stop to that. And although the Nigerien authorities have opened up Agadez to tourists again, most Western countries advise their citizens against travelling to Northern Niger.

However, visiting Agadez itself is still worthwhile. Walking through the old town with traditional Hausa and Tuareg mud-brick architecture takes you back hundreds of years. The inhabitants still live in dire poverty without running water and electricity, with a sewer system that consists of a pipe leading into a back alley. But it’s nonetheless an intriguing place, where behind every corner you discover something interesting, like an old man reading the Koran out loud, or teenage mother with a baby tied to her back doing laundry by the village pump, or a group of boys playing football with a ball made of dirty rags.

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The center point of Agadez is a tall, mud-structure mosque, decorated with wooden beams sticking out on the sides, much like a cactus. For a “small dash”, the caretaker opens the gate and you can climb to the top via a narrow staircase. I crept through a small opening into total darkness. A swishing sound of wings just above my head made me stop. Then I heard the screeches. Birds? I ducked and climbed higher, slowly. As the light seeped in from above, I started making out the shapes of what seemed to be millions of tiny flying things. Bats!
“Eduardo!” I screamed. But he was still taking photos below.. Crouched down, and with my heart beating at super-speed, I ran all the way up, with Eduardo, now following me closely at my heels, was panting with fear, but laughing.
We made it to the top, unbitten, to enjoy the 360 degree view of the dusty town. And stayed for a while, knowing what awaited us on the descent.

The caretaker chuckled contently when we returned back down. We had not paid him enough for him to warn us about the bats.

While Agadez may not be the most pleasant place in the Universe, a visit is definitely doable by exploring the town in the early hours of morning and late afternoons, and resting during the hottest hours of the day. And we ended up loving Agadez!

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Agadez – Staying Safe in Niger

Half-jokingly, I wrote on my Facebook page: “We made it out of Agadez without being kidnapped. Woohoo!” Because a few months before all NGOs had left the area due to threats from the Tuareg rebellions and Al Qaida. But as we had heard of other travellers visiting the area recently, we decided to head the warnings and go anyway.

Once there, we made friends with the local Tuaregs resting from the midday heat in the shadows outside our hotel. And while one of them called himself the Nigerien Osama Bin Laden, and promoted Sharia law in Niger, he became quite mellow and friendly once he managed to sell us some souvenirs.

But there was also a constant, although vague, feeling of unsafety. One day, on our way to the bakery, there was thick, black smoke rising up from the middle of the street. A tire was burning. People were screaming and running towards us. It took us a moment to realize what was happening. Then stones started flying, Suddenly, there was a big bang, like a gun shot. Shit! We were caught in a cross-fire between protesters and the police.
“Let’s get out of here,” I screamed. “Now!” As we ran, our eyes started burning. Teargas! We covered our faces with wet bandannas, and ran until we reached safety a couple of blocks away.
We were later told that they were protesting against the police, who had shot and killed a moto taxi driver the previous day. Nothing to worry about. Just a normal day in Agadez.

In the Camel market on the outskirts of town, where the Tuaregs converge to sell their camels, cows and goats, the atmosphere was equally ominous. Being the only non-Africans there, all eyes were on us as we walked around the open field in the afternoon heat. A group of men approached us, their heads and faces completely covered by their black turbans and sunglasses, and their hands resting on the large sables hanging on their belts. Shaking our hands, they asked us if we were French. No. Italian? No. From where? Peru. Aaah, Peru. Conversation was over. We were not the enemy. But we were not friends, either. Feeling uncomfortable in the hostile surroundings, we fled to the safety of our hotel room.

A couple of weeks after we left, seven people, including five French, were kidnapped in a uranium mine in Arlit, north of Agadez. So even if nothing happened to us, the threat, however small, was definitely real.

Terrorism, Tsunami – Now Greed

Sri Lanka could be paradise. Moon-shaped beaches. Azure waters rolling in over crusty white sand. Heavily laden palm trees casting their shadows on hot foreigners and cool locals. And inland: tropical hills and tea plantations bathing the landscape in a kaleidoscope of greens. Add gorgeous ruins of ancient cities and an Utopian image should emerge. For a moment you’ll even believe it; this could very well be the Eden where Adam first set foot on earth.

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…If it wasn’t for the civil war that eclipsed this island for thirty years. In a quest for an independent Muslim state in Northern Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers held the whole country under a terror spell with bombings, kidnappings and political murders. When the military reciprocated, more than one hundred thousand civilians lost their lives. Finally, in 2009, the president launched a terminal assault on the Tigers. The outcome was quite successful – the insurgents were eliminated (although another 40,000 innocent bystanders also lost their lives).

…If it wasn’t for the tsunami that crippled the country in 2004. Hitting the shores from all sides, the ten meter high wall of water killed 35,000 people and wiped out entire coastal communities. Suddenly ALL resorts were gone, and tourism came to a complete stop. There was nowhere to go.

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…If it wasn’t for the greed that in the few years of peace has blinded its citizens. While the restoration has been incredibly rapid, the prices have risen to almost European heights. The entrance fee to the ruins of Anuradhpura and Polonnaruwa costs a ridiculous $25 each. To climb a rock called Sigirya or walk uphill to Adam’s Peak relives you of an exorbitant $30. Compared to other world-class sites (Acropolis $16, Angkor Wat $20, Taj Mahal $14), the pricing strategy feels both naïve and downright rude. After all Sri Lanka has been through, shouldn’t they approach the tourism industry with a longer-term approach?

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Instead, Sri Lanka is getting a bad rap among travelers. Prices are too high, touts are too pushy and the heavenly beaches are too crowded. It’s a shame, because the locals you meet on a train, in a small town or on the street are really lovely. And kind. And smiling. And honest.

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But hope always floats. The island is far too beautiful to become a second thought. If only the greed is controlled, Sri Lanka could again become the paradise that was once blessed by Adam, Buddha, Mohammad and Shiva.

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