Guest blog: Safe and sound in Jordan

Fellow data researcher, Eleanor, was in Jordan. I’ve only been to Petra so was interested to hear about her experiences in the country’s capital, and here they are! Best wishes, Mark.

Amman, location of my most recent data collection trip, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world. Though it has only been the capital of Jordan (or, to give it its official title, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan) since 1947, Amman has existed in one form or another since before 8000 BC. Atop one of its central hills, Jabal al Qal’a, is the ruin of the Bronze Age citadel – together with the Roman amphitheatre, the city’s most famous attraction. But this is all that remains in evidence of the ancient past: around it, the rest of Amman sprawls out into a bustling and utterly modern metropolis.

Although it’s Rome that is best known as the original City of Seven Hills, Amman was also initially built on seven hills – or jabals, as they are known. (There are in fact more than seventy towns and cities worldwide which lay claim to being built on seven hills, ranging from Jerusalem and Athens to Albany, New York and the rather prosaically named Seven Hills in Ohio.) Nowadays, there are nineteen hills in Amman and the city keeps on expanding, currently home to more than 2 million people (roughly a third of Jordan’s population). A large number of these are expatriates – by proportion, Jordan is one of the world’s top five expat-recipient countries; the others are Qatar, UAE, Kuwait and Singapore. Strong economic growth and a high ranking in social, cultural and environmental factors make Amman one of the best cities in the MENA region and, behind Dubai, joint-second most popular regional location for multinational corporations.

Inside Amman's City Mall

Inside Amman’s City Mall

During my stay I certainly saw plenty of signs of a prosperous, cosmopolitan city. Greener and leafier than I had expected a city in the Middle East to be, the steep streets of Amman’s most affluent areas, such as Abdoun and Jabal Amman, are peppered with boutique shops, rooftop bars, luxury hotels and exclusive health clubs, all sitting alongside large mansions, embassies and contemporary art galleries. Malls such as the Taj Lifestyle Centre and City Mall cater to the shopping needs of most people, supermarkets such as Carrefour and Cozmo sell a huge variety of imported groceries alongside local products like dates, aubergines and olive oil, and for a change of pace there are still traditional souks in the city centre, some of which specialise in gold, books or haberdashery. The roads are always thronged with traffic – though it’s possible to walk around easily enough, crossing the road can sometimes require a series of complicated manoeuvres! – and life goes on late into the evening as people fill up bars and cafés to socialise, often over a shared water-pipe.

Perhaps because of the lively atmosphere, I found people in Jordan always eager to talk and I was able to have many interesting conversations with everyone from taxi drivers to journalists to relocation agents. No matter what the location or the level of language barrier between us, one topic on everyone’s lips was the current political situation in the Middle East. Sharing borders with Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Jordan is entirely surrounded by the melting pot that is the Middle East yet, miraculously, a beacon of peace and stability. Security is certainly a subject of great concern for both the government and general public and this is much in evidence – police patrols can be found on nearly every corner and the malls are surrounded by airport-style metal detectors, policemen and armoured vans – but by and large people seemed proud to tell me of the country’s peaceful stature and their resolve to keep it that way.

Of course, nowhere could be wholly unaffected by this position and Jordan has for several years seen a huge influx of Syrian refugees who are housed in camps and communities in the northern regions. Around 680,000 refugees are estimated to have crossed the border and Jordan is working to meet their humanitarian needs as well as to develop projects that bridge the divide between local and refugee communities. It has also not always been trouble-free: terrorist attacks in Amman killed nearly sixty people in 2005 . And whilst the unavoidable presence of policemen and security guards made me feel safe, they are a constant reminder of the situation underlying the normal, everyday life of this busy city.

Definitely planning on returning to Jordan one day to visit Petra

Definitely planning on returning to Jordan one day to visit Petra

Despite all the problems raging beyond its borders, Jordanians and expatriates living there were keen to tell me how safe a city Amman is – something which I certainly felt as I walked around. As well as feeling personally secure, on several occasions I even saw people leave their wallets, laptops and phones unattended on café tables while they popped home to pick something up or went outside to speak to somebody passing by: something I would definitely never consider doing at home in London!

Though Amman has plenty of charm, most visitors to Jordan are likely to only pass through it on their way to the country’s premier sites: the Dead Sea and its resorts such as Aqaba, the desert of Wadi Rum and the ancient, rock-hewn city of Petra. Sadly, though, visitors to Petra have halved in the last four years as travellers are put off by the news headlines and begin to avoid the region in general. Although Jordan’s economy does not rely solely on its tourism industry, it’s a problem that many countries have suffered from in the past when hit by wars, natural disasters or severe social problems. I didn’t manage to add Petra in to my itinerary for this trip but as somewhere I’ve always wanted to see and having really enjoyed Amman and its people, I am putting it firmly at the top of my list and hoping that peace continues long in Jordan.

ECAintl-Data-Researcher_EleanorEleanor is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. She travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.

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Revisiting Dakar

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It was only a few weeks ago that I was blogging about my recent trip to Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu. The images of devastation caused by this week’s earthquake have shocked the world and it is yet another reminder that many populated areas around the world are prone to the forces of nature. It’s very strange to think that only a month or so ago I stood among the temples in Durbar Square now lying in heaps of rubble. My thoughts go out to those who have suffered and are dealing with the aftermath.

A colourful local bus

A colourful local bus

More recently I have been to Dakar, the capital of Senegal and most westerly point of the African mainland. In fact, until the discovery by Europeans of the Americas in the 15th century it was also the most westerly point of the known world (now called the Old World) which consisted of the land masses of Africa, Europe and Asia. It’s the second ‘Dakar’ I’ve visited during this cost of living survey period – I was also in the Bangladeshi capital ‘Dhaka’ in February – but the two cities are quite different.

Once a colony of France, Senegal gained its independence in 1960. Over the past 50 years it has been one of the more peaceful nations in the tumultuous area of Western Africa, and it has not been affected by recent troubles in bordering countries be it Ebola in Guinea, the terrorist conflicts in Mali or political instability in Mauritania.

I first visited Senegal back in 2007. Eight years on there have been definite improvements in the shopping environment. The country’s first upscale mall, Sea Plaza, opened in 2009, complete with the large French supermarket, Casino, and a genuine Hugo Boss outlet! And next door a slice of five star luxury can be had at the new(ish) Radisson Blu hotel and its choice of bars and restaurants overlooking the glistening sea.

Also new since my last visit is the African Renaissance Monument, the largest statue in Africa. At 49 metres tall and clad in shimmering bronze it dominates the skyline and has become an instant tourist attraction in a city lacking much else in the extraordinary stakes. The unveiling was even attended by US activist Jesse Jackson and the rapper Akon. However, the construction of the monument was not without controversy, with costs soaring during the global economic crisis and the contract to build it being won by a North Korean company.

The African Renaissance Monument - the tallest statue in Africa

The African Renaissance Monument – the tallest statue in Africa

Dakar’s location on the Atlantic coast and the fact that it’s not too hot at this time of year (it was in the upper 20’s during my visit) meant it was actually a pleasure walking from shopping malls to supermarkets to restaurants and everything in between. An afternoon stroll along the sun-kissed Corniche certainly beat being sat behind a computer in an office! Part of the feel good factor came from the fact that I wasn’t pestered – at all! Quite often on the African continent it’s  impossible for someone who is clearly not local to walk through the markets and streets without being implored to buy something or get involved in a long winded conversation. Poverty is often a big driver behind this but in Senegal although poverty does exist it’s not on the same scale as nations such as Sierra Leone, Niger or Chad.

Since my last visit to Dakar there seems to have been a proliferation of French-style bakeries and patisseries dotted throughout the city. Once inside these it can feel very much as though you’re in a café in Paris – all sorts of enticing breads, pastries and cakes can be found to savour while sipping a cappuccino over brunch. In fact, it is quite common for the large French expatriate community to live a virtually complete French way of life. Although Senegalese traditions remain, the French influence throughout Dakar is undeniable, not least once you step into one of the Casino supermarkets with an array of French brand grocery products and healthy looking meat counters. Many of the top-end services such as hair salons and fitness clubs are run by French expatriates in fact.

Fishing boats lined up on the beach

Fishing boats lined up on the beach

Shopping done, a popular pastime for locals and visitors alike is to head to the Corniche in the late afternoon where you can find all sorts of engaging activities taking place. There’s a skateboard park, Magic Land (Senegal’s very own amusement park), quirky sculptures, towering mosques, colourful graffiti and bustling artisanal markets. However, the highlight for me was the fish market at Soumbedioune cove. On a small arc of beach as evening draws in you will find hundreds of brightly and imaginatively painted fishing boats, or pirogues, hauled on to the sand. The daily catch of fish and seafood is brought up to the stalls where droves of eager customers bargain hard to get the most barracuda or lobster for their francs. I am lucky to get to witness such scenes as part of my job!

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Flash floods and rock ballads in Chile and Uruguay

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Many of the countries and cities of Central and South America are infamous for their high homicide rates, gang violence, drug smuggling and political corruption but where is the best country to live in the region if you want to steer clear of any potential trouble? Well, there are two which top the list and it was these two nations where I rounded off my data collection trip to South America: Chile and Uruguay.

Sprawling Santiago

Sprawling Santiago

Chile, one of only two countries in South America that doesn’t border Brazil (the other being Ecuador), has one of the most recognisable outlines of any country. It is 24 times as long as it is wide, stretching from the freezing waters of the southern fjords all the way up to the driest desert in the world some 4300 kilometres away, and averaging a mere 180 kilometres in width. In between are some 1300 volcanoes and about two thirds of the way up is the capital city of Santiago. Home to 35% of the population it is one of the largest cities on the continent with 6.3 million people. I found it similar to the salubrious suburbs of Lima and much of the city is highly developed. Last year the Gran Torre Santiago was completed and at 300 metres high is currently the tallest building in Latin America. As well as modern skyscrapers there are plenty of swanky malls for perusing the windows of unaffordable designer outlets. This and the proliferation of US fast food chains makes much of the city feel like it is in the States rather than Latin America.

Chile has the highest human development index of any Latin American nation and also leads the region in terms of income per capita, low perception of corruption and economic freedom. In fact it ranks a dizzying 7th globally in terms of economic freedom. The economy relies heavily on the mineral wealth of the north, particularly copper for which it is responsible for a third of the world’s production. And it was to the north where I headed after my work was done in Santiago, to the Atacama – the driest desert in the world…

The moon? No, just Moon Valley in the Atacama desert

The moon? No, just Moon Valley in the Atacama desert

…except, for my stay of three days it was anything but dry! There are some areas of the desert where rain has never been recorded and the March average in San Pedro de Atacama where I stayed is a mere two millimetres of rain. But on arrival we had about two inches of apocalyptic rain in the space of a few hours. There were brief moments of respite but over the days the rains continued. I later found out that the government had issued a Constitutional State of Exceptional Catastrophe and I was just unfortunate to be there during the wettest period in over a century!

Moai statues in silhouette

Moai statues in silhouette

Leaving the soggy desert behind me I flew to the most remote airport in the world (as in the furthest from any other airport, if that makes sense!). It’s on the mystical Easter Island, a small dot some 3500 kilometres west of the Chilean mainland in the Pacific Ocean. Surprisingly, the island itself looks just like Wales, with rolling green hills and country lanes. However, the two locations differ when it comes to having giant enigmatic statues made of volcanic rock! The main reason people visit Easter Island is to see the famed Moai statues. They truly are mightily impressive and well worth the long and expensive side trip from walking the aisles of supermarkets – and they make for better photos too! I enjoyed every moment of my time on Easter Island except waking with a startle in the middle of the night to find a huge cockroach crawling across my face – that’s never happened to me in Wales!

After my time out at Easter Island, I rounded off my month long data collecting trip in South America’s second smallest country – Uruguay. Famed for its footballing exploits but not a lot else, the nation has always been overshadowed by its two giant neighbours, Brazil and Argentina. Along with Chile, Uruguay tops lists of Latin American nations for GDP per capita, peacefulness, quality of living, press freedom and low corruption levels. It’s a very liberal and tolerant nation too, being the only country in the world to legalise abortion, same-sex marriage and marijuana!

Beaches abound along the Montevideo coastline which most expats call their home away from home

Beaches abound along the Montevideo coastline which most expats call their home away from home

It also seems to be stuck in a musical time warp. When I was about eight or nine years old I remember my favourite song being Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now by Starship. I still like the song but it seems the Uruguayans like it even more. For some reason the song is blasted out through speakers in every shop or quietly piped out from the supermarket audio systems. I felt a little like I was transported back to my youth, especially with other classic 80’s rock ballads getting in on the act too. For your interest, this is no bad thing in my opinion!

80’s rock ballads aside I found Montevideo, the capital, to have quite a different atmosphere to other Spanish speaking nations on the continent. It feels a lot more European, organised and laid back than many of the frenetic cities I visited, particularly those in Brazil. This is no doubt down to the fact that almost 90% of the population is of European origin mostly descending from France, Spain and Italy during the 19th and 20th centuries. Although the city is of only moderate size (some 1.9 million live in the metropolitan area) it is over ten times larger than Uruguay’s second city and more than half of the country’s people live in the capital. Named by the Economist as Country of the Year in 2013, Uruguay certainly has many aspects which are the envy of its neighbours.

I’ve been using the terms ‘South’ and ‘Latin’ America throughout this post but I’d just like to clarify that they are not actually the same thing and I wasn’t just using the terms randomly. Many people presume they are the same (I certainly used to think so!) but South America is a geographical entity which includes the 12 countries from Colombia southwards. Latin America is a cultural entity which includes the 20 countries of all of the Americas which speak Latin based languages, namely, Spanish, French and Portuguese. Mexico is the most northerly of these although geographically it is considered part of North America.

Before I say adios I’ll just let you know that the mysterious bumpy yellow fruit mentioned in my previous post is in fact a variety of dragon fruit. Phew, you can sleep easily at night now knowing that!

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From high in the Andes to the Pacific coast – Ecuador to Peru

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My first visit to Ecuador’s capital city, Quito, was some eight years ago. I remember back then the immediate effects of the high altitude on my breathing and how I kept having to take deep controlled breaths just to…er…breathe! Well, I was a smoker back then and although the same thing happened this time I’m sure it was not quite as bad.

Quito is the highest ‘official’ capital city in the world, nestled at 2850 metres above sea level in the Andean mountain range. I say ‘official’ because while there is no doubt over Quito being the capital of Ecuador, there is some ambiguity as to whether the Bolivian city of La Paz, which is higher than Quito, is a capital or not, as I blogged about last year.

Hills around Quito

Hills around Quito

Not much has changed in Quito since 2007, neither on the ‘shopping’ front nor in the country as a whole. Rarely making global headlines, Ecuador seems to just get along with no real fuss. Once you’ve acclimatised to the thinner air it’s a pleasant place to be – nothing spectacular but with most of the modern day trappings any expat could hope to find while on assignment.

The supermarket environment is dominated by the Megamaxi and Supermaxi chains, both owned by the same company and selling the same brands at the same prices. The difference is that the several outlets of Megamaxi are indeed mega selling pretty much anything that you’d want to get your hands on: from a rice cooker to the latest 3D curved screen television or from jasmine rice (to put in the rice cooker!) to tennis balls and everything in between, except clothing. For clothes you just have to head to one of the city’s many modern malls to find an array of popular international designer brands.

Located in the Andes, the surrounding hills and peaks give a dramatic backdrop to every angle of the city and if trekking is your thing then there are abundant options for any adventurous expat wishing to get away from urban life for a few days. Some 25km north of the city is the middle of the earth – quite literally! ‘Mitad del Mundo’ is a rather grandiose monument erected for tourists and locals alike to come and straddle the equator, the imaginary line which gives the country its name. The rather amusing point to this tourist attraction is that it was built (and the ‘line’ painted) some 35 years ago but in the intervening years the advances in GPS technology have confirmed that the true equator is actually 200 metres to the north! With this knowledge in mind I took a little detour from data collecting to head to the ‘real’ equator. And sure enough they did the ‘water going down a plughole’ demonstration on the line. This is where on the equator the water goes straight down the plughole with no swirling but a metre either side in the southern and northern hemispheres the water swirls clockwise and anticlockwise respectively. Well, it may be a bit of a myth but it’s fun watching people’s reactions nonetheless.

The 'water down the plughole' demonstration actually worked!

The ‘water down the plughole’ demonstration actually worked!

Leaving the heady heights of the Andes behind me I flew south to Ecuador’s large neighbour, Peru. The capital, Lima, is situated on the coast so my lungs were able to revert to their usual work rate. This was my first visit to Peru, a country I’ve always wanted to visit to explore the Inca sights and walk the Inca Trail up in the Andes. Alas, that will have to wait for another time as there were more pressing activities at hand, like collecting grocery prices!

I was very surprised by Lima. It’s a huge city, the second most populated on the continent behind Sao Paulo in Brazil, and the suburbs seem to sprawl endlessly. I was expecting what I call a ‘halfway’ sort of city ie one that’s neither developed and Western nor particularly poor and undeveloped. Well, I’m sure that some neighbourhoods are a little run down, as in any large city, but not where I stayed in the areas of San Isidro and Miraflores. These are very popular with the expat and consular communities and for good reason. The areas are highly developed and, while some districts of the capital are considered dangerous, San Isidro and Miraflores are safe and offer all that you’d hope for. In fact, the supermarkets, such as Vivanda and Wong, are some of the most upmarket I’ve visited in the world – and I’ve seen my fair share of global supermarkets!

A mystery fruit which I've not seen before!

A mystery fruit which I’ve not seen before!

Peru is the 20th largest country in the world and around two thirds of it is covered in rainforest. There are also abundant mineral deposits in Peru, making mining an essential part of the country’s economy. It is in the top five global producers of copper, gold, silver, tin, zinc and lead – a fairly impressive stat! It’s also where the ever popular potato is from. It was first domesticated in the region over 7000 years ago and brought to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors after conquering the Inca Empire in the 16th century. So, next time you tuck in to a packet of crisps or munch on some French fries remember you have Peru to thank. Besides an abundance of potatoes in the supermarkets, I also came across a new fruit which I’ve not seen before. Pictured to the left, please let me know if you have any idea what it is!

One final nugget of knowledge from Peru which I found amusing is that of their New Year’s Eve traditions. While some nations will sing Auld Land Syne, set off fireworks or make resolutions for the coming year the Peruvians prefer instead to…give yellow underpants to their family and friends!

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A trip to the Guianas

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Look at a map of South America and you’ll immediately notice the usual suspects: Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Chile. But look more closely and you’ll notice a trio of ‘countries’ on the Atlantic coast just to the north of Brazil and to the east of Venezuela. I say ‘countries’ since one of these, French Guiana, is not actually a country but a department of France (so, yes, officially France and Brazil border each other!) This department along with the nations of Suriname and Guyana make up the little known area of South America often referred to as the Guianas. None of them is Portuguese or Spanish speaking which is what people usually automatically associate with South America, and it’s not just the language which makes these three places unique within the continent either.

Japanese goods galore in French Guiana

Japanese goods galore in French Guiana

My travels through the Guianas started in Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana. One of five overseas departments (can you name the other four?!) and also the largest overseas region of France, its correct name is actually Guyane. It’s just us foreigners who refer to it specifically as ‘French’. Being a region of France it is in the European Union and uses the euro as official currency. It also relies heavily on the Motherland for subsidies and trade.

It’s difficult to describe Cayenne. It’s not particularly French and it doesn’t in any way resemble the Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries of the continent. While it does have a somewhat Caribbean feel to it, the investment from France spent on roads and other infrastructure does give it a more developed European feel, especially with the presence of the Geant Casino and Carrefour hypermarkets along the perfectly tarmacked route from the airport.

Just over 50% of the population were born in French Guiana and around 10% were born on the French mainland with the remaining citizens being from nearby countries such as Brazil and Suriname. There is definitely a ‘melting pot’ atmosphere to Cayenne, with elegant, well-dressed women carrying freshly baked baguettes under their arm, Chinese mini-mart owners chastising their kids for pinching sweets from their shop and weathered looking locals ‘liming’ (It’s a Caribbean thing – it means hanging around, chatting and chilling!) on the town’s Palmistries Plaza.

Aside from the subsidies received from the French government the major economic drivers are gold mining and the Guiana Space Centre. It may seem like a strange place to build a space centre but actually being a stable country near the equator with low population density makes it an ideal candidate. So much so that it is the European Space Agency’s primary launch site near the equator.

Colonial buildings in Paramaribo's centre

Colonial buildings in Paramaribo’s centre

Some 350 kilometres north of Cayenne and a 40 minute flight away is Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname. Formerly called Dutch Guiana, I found that here the eclectic mix of people was even greater than in Cayenne. When in South America the last thing I expected to see were Hindu temples, towering mosques and Chinese enterprises all combined with a touch of Dutchness!

Suriname became independent from the Netherlands as recently as 1975 and it certainly has a unique feel to it. It was governed by the Dutch for over 300 years but it still has a distinct Caribbean flavour to it. More recently a Chinese influence has become more prevalent and many of the shops are owned and run by the Chinese community, which numbers over 40,000, some 7% of the population.

The capital, Paramaribo, is much larger and more spread out than I was expecting, with the outlets I needed to get to for my data collection extending over a whopping ten kilometres. So, instead of the usual stroll around town I opted for a new mode of transport for shop-hopping – the bicycle. It would probably be illegal to drive that bike back in the UK, with its rusting chain, half-flat tyres and wonky saddle but it was certainly a fun and challenging way of getting about, if a little surreal. I came a cropper, however, when the rains came as cycling and holding an umbrella don’t mix well.

St George's Cathedral - the tallest wooden church in the world!

St George’s Cathedral – the tallest wooden church in the world!

The last of the Guiana’s on my trip was Guyana, formerly British Guiana, and a country I’ve been to once before. The ambience of the capital, Georgetown, is very much like that of Caribbean capitals and if you didn’t know you were on the South American mainland you would swear that you were somewhere like Barbados or Grenada, such is the similarity. In fact, Georgetown is home to the headquarters of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).

The equatorial rains continued during my time there and my brolly became a ‘must have’ when venturing out on the streets. Georgetown is much smaller than Paramaribo so getting around on foot is fairly straightforward, although strolls after dark should be avoided as some areas of the town have a bad reputation for crime. After one long morning I reached what I was hoping to be KFC for a well-earned lunch but, to my chagrin, KFC have closed down in Guyana. I had to go to Church’s Chicken instead! The Pizza Hut from my previous visit has also closed down so I hope that expats living in Georgetown are happy with the local alternatives!

Kaiteur Falls, Guyana, a natural wonder

Kaiteur Falls, Guyana, a natural wonder

Before I go I must say that if you ever find yourself in Guyana I strongly recommend a trip to see Kaiteur Falls which are buried deep in the Guyana rainforest. I didn’t get to visit again this trip but I would certainly rank them among the top five natural wonders that I’ve been fortunate enough to experience!

Next up will be a post from the ‘real’ South America as I venture into the Spanish speaking nations of Ecuador and Peru on the Pacific coast. Until then…!

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From rickshaw capital to elevated capital: Dhaka to Kathmandu

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From a cost of living data collection point of view moving from India to Bangladesh was rather a surprise. I mentioned in my last post about the difficulties of getting imported foodstuffs in parts of India but in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka I found myself in imported food heaven! On the flipside, however, the choice of non-food items is pretty dire compared to the large metropolises of its neighbour. Clothing options, in particular, is fairly poor with no recognizable Western-brand clothing stores. This is perhaps rather ironic seeing as Bangladesh is noted for manufacturing and exporting clothing for the Western markets abroad. The country is one of the world’s largest textile exporters and the textile industry accounts for 70% of its export earnings. The industry came to international attention two years ago when an eight storey textile factory building collapsed in the capital. The deaths of over 1100 workers brought to light the terrible conditions and lack of adequate safety procedures concerned with the thousands of similar factories across the country. In response many of the Western companies involved have signed an accord to push through improvements in safety.

Looking down on the main intersection of Gulshan in Dhaka

Looking down on the main intersection of Gulshan in Dhaka

I can’t see any sweeping changes happening overnight though. Especially with regard to the structural integrity of many of the buildings. Even in the Gulshan area of Dhaka where I was based for my two days, and which is thought of as an expat haven away from the ‘real’ Dhaka, many of the buildings look like they could topple at any moment! In this respect it is not dissimilar from India, and the similarities don’t end there. At street level there are still the sights of all sorts of animals roaming around and the smells, noises and dirt are part and parcel of everyday life too. You’re unlikely to see many cows roaming the streets however as Bangladesh is a Muslim nation and the cow is not revered like it is by the Hindus. The traffic is as chaotic as anything which India can muster, though, and Dhaka has been given the sobriquet of Rickshaw Capital of the World.

One of the many dilapidated rickshaws in Bangladesh's capital

One of the many dilapidated rickshaws in Bangladesh’s capital

I was surprised to read during my trip prep that Bangladesh has only been an independent nation since 1971. I assumed that it gained its freedom from India after the exit of the British Empire in 1947 but for 24 years Bangladesh was called East Bengal (and then East Pakistan) and was part of Pakistan. After independence the new nation suffered for 20 years with all sorts of political upheavals, widespread poverty and famine.

Since the 1990s, though, the situation has improved somewhat. Although still a less developed nation Bangladesh is part of the ‘Next Eleven’, a list of 11 nations described by Goldman Sachs as having the potential to join the BRIC countries as one of the world’s brightest economies. I think this seems very unlikely as there are still many problems affecting the country, not least of all its vulnerability to natural disasters and the effects of climate change. Bangladesh sits on the site of the world’s largest river delta where the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers meet. On the plus side this provides ample fertile soil but on the downside is the constant flooding which much of the country suffers. Add in the odd tropical cyclone and tornado and you really have a recipe for disaster. In 1998 some two thirds of the country were under water after similar climatic comings together. It also doesn’t help that Bangladesh is the most densely populated large country in the world leaving millions of people at the whims of nature. (By ‘large’ I mean anything larger than Bahrain – which is tiny!).

Bus station in Kathmandu

Bus station in Kathmandu

After leaving Dhaka behind I flew on to Nepal, the only country in the world which doesn’t have a quadrilateral shaped flag! For some reason this fact had already endeared me to the country even though this was my first visit. Nepal is known as the home of Mount Everest and is also home to eight of the world’s ten highest mountains. So, bearing this in mind I was expecting it to be a tad lofty and cold in Kathmandu. Well, it wasn’t too cold (nudging the low 20’s) and it’s actually only the 17th highest capital city in the world, sitting below Guatemala City and Nairobi!

According to the Nepali calendar the year is 2071 and their time zone is some 5 hours and 45 minutes ahead of GMT. But driving out of the airport it felt more like 1991 than 2015, or even 2071. I wasn’t expecting the place to be well developed but the city certainly has its fair share of run-down buildings and poverty. The last time I had street children begging for dollars and refusing to let go of my arm was years ago in Kolkata and it came as a shock to see how poor some of the citizens are. That said, it felt safe enough walking around the streets, as long as you keep your eyes on the pavements (or lack of) underfoot.

Bhatbhateni - THE place to shop in Kathmandu

Bhatbhateni – THE place to shop in Kathmandu

In terms of the shopping environment Kathmandu is no New York but the supermarkets are still better stocked with Western imports than many areas of India. For decades a pillar of the shopping scene in Nepal’s capital has been Bhatbhateni which now has four outlets. The Oxford Street or Fifth Avenue of Kathmandu is considered to be Durbar Marg (also known as Kingsway) but it’s got a long way to go before it can call itself a shopping mecca!

Tourism plays a big part in the Nepal economy and so I felt I had to indulge a little in what Kathmandu has to offer during my time there. I hope you enjoy the photos of the various shrines, mountains, monkeys, dragons and markets in the slideshow above! Next time I’ll be blogging from the continent I have visited the least – South America.


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India’s Millennium City… plus a data researcher’s nightmare

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It’s been a while since my last blog post but, truth be told, I’ve been busy rushing around India, Nepal and Bangladesh as well as researching other upcoming data collection trips. Regular readers of the blog may recall that my first ever post, some three years ago, was from the chaotic streets of India. They may also remember that that trip didn’t end too well after I picked up a nasty bug which knocked me out for a few weeks. Well, this time I made it out unscathed and now find myself in a rather different place on the planet – French Guiana. I’ll be blogging about this place soon. However, I wanted to share photos and thoughts from my India trip with you first.

Cows are free to roam where they choose in India

Cows are free to roam where they choose in India

There are a lot of people in India, some 1.25 billion in fact, and there are seven cities with a population of over five million, all of which are covered by ECA’s Cost of Living survey. A recent addition to our list of Indian location’s is Gurgaon. The name derives from ‘Guru Gram’ which means Village of the Guru and if you look at a Google Maps image of India’s capital city Delhi, then you’ll be able to spot Gurgaon some 30 km to the south and east. The city is so close to the capital that it is part of Delhi’s metro transit system and is essentially a satellite city of Delhi.

Gurgaon was once a small agricultural village but since leading Indian car manufacturer Maruti Suzuki opened up a manufacturing plant there back in the 1970’s it has grown to be one of the most important and modern areas of the country. Today it is home to operations of over half of the Fortune 500 companies and the likes of Microsoft, IBM, Coca Cola and American Express have established their Indian corporate headquarters in the self-dubbed Millennium City. It has one of the highest per capita incomes in India and has become one of the world’s most important offshoring centres.

Galleria Market shopping area in Gurgaon

Galleria Market shopping area in Gurgaon

Although very new by Indian city standards, Gurgaon still has that essence of splendid chaos which I mentioned in my first ever blog post. I’m pretty sure that in no other country in the world would you be able to find free roaming monkeys, cows, dogs, goats, pigs, peacocks, horses and camels – all together! Well they certainly add to the unique smells and sounds of an Indian city. The ‘India trip’ which is carried out twice a year is usually one which we ECA international data researchers try to avoid. Magical and mysterious as India can be there really doesn’t seem to be anywhere else that wears you down quite as much: the chaos, noise, smells, beggars, being stared at, getting ill, the heat, the rain, the difficulty in tracking down shopping items – and  for the ladies there are additional troublesome aspects of travelling around India, as my colleague, Rachel, blogged about previously. However, I have to say this time around it was ok (not getting sick helped, of course!). Love it or hate it, India is certainly not a boring place, with seething humanity everywhere you look. Sure, I felt like a walking exhibit half the time, and when you enter a shop you get swarmed by the staff trying to get a commission on any sales, but outside of the monsoon season it’s not that bad a place really. Mind you, I was just visiting briefly. Expats and their families are there day in, day out, which, as you can probably tell, wouldn’t be for me!

Magson - great for imported foods in Ahmedabad

Magson – great for imported foods in Ahmedabad

This brings me on to the topic of home comforts for expats in India, in particular with regards to finding familiar day to day goods and groceries. Availability in Gurgaon and Delhi was, on the whole, good but then I moved on to the capital of the state of Rajasthan, Jaipur – an IDR’s nightmare! Let me explain: in all Indian cities there are several supermarket chains which can be found throughout the country. These include Big Bazaar, Reliance Fresh, Spencer’s and HyperCity. All of the outlets of these supermarkets will sell the staples such as rice, bread and pasta and will have local made versions of items such as cereal, biscuits, jam and ketchup but some outlets will have a ‘gourmet’ section where you can get imported foodstuffs. These outlets tend only to be in areas of cities which are home to the middle and upper classes, and where foreign workers live. In the cities where there are large expatriate populations there are also small grocery stores dedicated to selling imported home comforts. The chains vary from city to city but include Nature’s Basket, Modern Bazaar and Le Marche. Often these small shops will not look much from the outside but will contain a treasure trove of goods such as brie and Edam cheeses, Lindt chocolate, Bonne Maman jam and Heinz ketchup! Now, while Gurgaon and Delhi have many gourmet food shops, hunting around Jaipur trying to find any is a hopeless task. Even the outlets of HyperCity and Big Bazaar there only have the bare essentials. So, if you love your brie and Heinz ketchup then best bring it with you when heading to Jaipur!

Alpha One - Ahmedabad's premier shopping mall

Alpha One – Ahmedabad’s premier shopping mall

Thankfully, I had better luck in the next city I visited – Ahmedabad. Although the choice of imported foodstuffs is nowhere near as good as Gurgaon and Delhi there are at least a few shops selling some favourites from home, with Magson perhaps being the best bet. Ahmedabad is another new location in India for me. It is the sixth largest city in the country and was predicted to be one of the fastest growing cities this decade according to Forbes. In 2012, the Times of India named Ahmedabad as the best mega-city to live in in India. It is also an important location for the IT industry as well as pharmaceuticals and the automobile industry.

I know it’s been a few weeks since I left you with a teaser asking you to name six countries other than Angola which are officially Portuguese speaking. Well, congratulations if you came up with Brazil, Portugal, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde and Sao Tome and Principe.

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Stuck in traffic in Angola’s expensive capital

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Two years ago my colleague Rachel reported on her visit to Luanda, the capital of Angola, in Southern Africa. She mentioned many of the issues which affect life in the city, including the disparities between rich and poor and the city’s continued transition to peacetime after the 27 year long civil war. For me, however, the two aspects which stood out head and shoulders above the others were the traffic and the cost of goods! I’ve visited a fair few cities in my time and I have to say that Luanda tops them all in terms of jaw dropping prices and horrendous congestion.

Belas Shopping Mall in Luanda

Belas Shopping Mall in Luanda

In ECA’s September 2014 Cost of Living Survey, Luanda remained the second most expensive city in the world for expatriates, behind Caracas in Venezuela.  Of course some aspects of business life are always going to be on the expensive side, wherever you are, but in Luanda if you want to entertain business colleagues in a decent top end restaurant you won’t get much change back from USD 200 for one person. If you want a reliable broadband connection at home it will cost you ten times as much as it would in the UK and should you want to buy an iPad Air tablet there, you can, but it will set you back something in the region USD 1500. Even a typical three star hotel  will cost over USD 300 a night and you can expect to pay upwards of USD 425 for a four star hotel. Once you’ve paid for the room the extreme costs don’t stop there. One evening I went to dine in my relatively simple hotel’s restaurant and saw before me a rather sorry looking buffet of cheese, stale bread and bruised fruit. I gawped when the waiter informed me it costs USD 75 – without drinks! So, like Rachel a couple of years earlier, I plumped for the USD 35 spaghetti Bolognese instead!

Much of Luanda is a construction site

Much of Luanda is a construction site

Unfortunately, I was pretty much confined to eating at my hotel because getting a taxi anywhere seemed like a bad option. The taxi drivers in Luanda must live a rather strange life. They spend most of their day getting bored whilst stuck in traffic but on the plus side they’ll be getting rich for inching along at a snail’s pace. Luanda is a big city of some five million people and the southern area called Luanda Sul is where many expats live and shop but often they will work in the city centre. The distance between the two is about 15 kilometres and with no train or subway system the only option is to drive. Because the airport is sandwiched between them there is really only one road to take and with hundreds of thousands of people – not just expats – doing this commute the gridlock is unbearable. Add to that the lack of air conditioning in my taxi and the fact that it cost almost USD 100 for the privilege, this was not a journey I enjoyed! This has been a problem for many years but although the city centre looks like one big construction site I couldn’t see any sign of better roads being built!

Luanda's Marginal waterfront

Luanda’s Marginal waterfront

Angola’s economy is one of the fastest growing in Africa and 50% of the country’s GDP is derived from the oil industry. The diamond mining industry is also an important part of the economy with Angola being the third largest producer of diamonds on the continent. Many assignees working for companies in these two industries will be spared the daily traffic congestion of the capital, though, as they are often based on an offshore installation or a mining facility. Mind you, although they get to miss out on the awful daily commute, the more isolated locations they’re in come with their own set of challenges (and if you are in International HR and reading this you might well be interested to read about the new remote location calculator ECA have launched.)

I haven’t ended a blog with a teaser for a while so here’s to the first one of 2015. Angola is one of seven official Portuguese speaking countries in the world. Can you name the other six?

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Guest blog: Male – the ‘other’ Maldives

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A happy 2015 to all our followers! The team and I are currently preparing for this year’s trips and will be back on the data collection trail shortly. In the meantime, my colleague, Shona, shares her experiences of Male. Best wishes, Mark.

Following a recent trip to India, I had the pleasure of a stop-over in the Maldives to collect data. The smallest country in Asia, and the smallest Muslim country in the world, the Republic of Maldives is made up of 1,190 coral islands which are grouped into 26 different atolls. Of these, only around 200 of the islands are inhabited, and another 80 are used exclusively as tourist resorts.

Hanging bananas on the streets of Male

Hanging bananas on the streets of Male

Despite being prominently known as a luxury holiday hotspot, with around 28% of the country’s GDP coming from the tourist industry, the capital, Male, offers a very different experience. Located on the largest island in the country, with a population of over 100,000 people, the island is the fifth most densely populated in the world, and a busy hub compared to the idyllic retreats most people imagine the Maldives to be.

It makes a nice change collecting data in a city that can be entirely traversed by foot- most of the roads are so narrow in fact that I was surprised that the local taxis managed to squeeze down them. A variety of small supermarkets and other stores are dotted around the island- some better stocked than others. Despite enjoying the freedom from public transport, I soon learnt the hard way that having a map is a must for newcomers here as the roads and so small and winding, it becomes very easy to get lost.

An alleyway in town

An alleyway in town

Converted from Buddhism in the 12th century, the islands of the Maldives now follow traditional Islamic law. This means that shops close for 15 minutes after the call to prayer (which, added to the fact that a number of stores close for up to two hours over lunch, makes data collection a test of patience!), and in the case of the Maldives includes a ban on bringing symbols of other religions into the country. This helped explain why the Thai restaurant I visited had pictures of Venice and other European destinations on its walls, rather than the Buddhist statues and paintings normally associated with Thailand. Bringing alcohol and pork into the country is also restricted as it is illegal to consume these in Male. This applies to tourists as well as locals, and those in desperate need of a drink will have to hop on a boat and travel over to Hulhue Island, where the airport is located, to get their pricey fix. Fortunately for the throngs of holidaymakers who visit, the island resorts are exempt from the ban.

Alongside the Muslim traditions in the Maldives, there also remains a strong belief in the powers of black and white magic, and the September 2013 elections made headlines across the world when police detained a coconut deemed to be acting suspiciously by a polling station. The police called in a white magician who confirmed that the coconut was in fact innocent and was later released without charge.

Hotel chalets over the sea

Hotel chalets over the sea

Whilst visiting Male, I heard numerous grumblings about the price of electricity here. Residents face paying incredibly high power costs as electricity is supplied through diesel fired generators. This makes it one of the most expensive places in the world for power, having the highest running costs in South Asia. Male also suffers from water shortages, exacerbated last year by a fire at the island’s only water treatment plant. Desalination plants provide the only form of drinkable mains water for residents and water supplies had to be sent over from nearby countries such as India, while international engineers arrived to try and tackle the problem. The shortages forced thousands of locals to relocate to nearby islands which were unaffected. Along with these ongoing issues, the Maldives is the lowest country in the world, with the highest point being just 2.4m above sea level, and therefore faces the very real threat of being completely submerged should global warming lead to rising sea levels. To draw attention to this issue, the then president Mohamed Nasheed held his 2009 cabinet meeting underwater.

The reality of life on Male differs greatly with what most imagine the Maldives to be. I did manage to squeeze in a visit to one of the famous paradise island resorts, and the 30 minute boat trip couldn’t have left me feeling any further away from the hectic capital.

ECAintl-International-Data-Researcher_ShonaShona is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. She travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.

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A year of travelling in review – highlights from 2014

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Between us we covered quite some distance this year, making around 250 trips! Here’s a sample of our most memorable experiences and discoveries. Season’s Greetings from all of us in the International Data Research team!

Favourite locations visited in 2014

Nick: Kigali, Rwanda – the ‘land of a thousand hills’ was a real eye-opener. The country is green, the weather was great and it felt safe to wander the streets of the capital. I wasn’t sure whether it would be insensitive to ask questions about the country’s bloody past but the locals spoke openly about the 1994 genocide and seemed optimistic about the country’s future.

St John’s, Canada is North America’s ‘oldest’ city and has some pretty colourful streets!

St John’s, Canada is North America’s ‘oldest’ city and has some pretty colourful streets!

Rachel: St John’s, Canada – North America’s ‘oldest’ city and the location where the first transatlantic radio signal was received. Friendly people, good food, historic areas and distinctive, brightly coloured houses. The city’s George Street reputedly has the highest concentration of bars in North America.

Shona: The Cayman Islands – I love a good beach and Seven Mile beach is pretty close to perfect. Add in the best fish tacos I’ve ever eaten, swimming with stingrays at Stingray City and fairly straightforward data collection, and it was probably my favourite location this year!

Hugh: Yangon in Myanmar is a beautiful city, with incredibly friendly people and surprisingly well stocked supermarkets. Also, I have to mention South Tarawa (Kiribati) – it’s a bit out of the way but if you happen to be passing through the sunset is incredible.

Eleanor: Muscat, capital of Oman. It was my first time visiting the Middle East and I really enjoyed it. Muscat is calm and clean with a beautiful seafront, dazzling white buildings and friendly people. I also loved Gabon. It’s peaceful, prosperous and has acres of unspoilt jungle perfect for gorilla-spotting and other trekking safaris.

Dan: Beirut, Lebanon. The people were welcoming, the food great and the atmosphere terrific. Oh, and the sun was out the entire time!

Mark: Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories of Canada. It’s a small but important regional town as far north as I’m ever likely to visit on the American continent. And it has my favourite ever license plates – shaped like a polar bear.


Memorable meals

Nick: Pork chops with grilled plantain and a sweet and sour barbecue sauce at ‘Hotel Rwanda’ – fantastic!

Rachel: During a 6-hour stopover in Buenos Aires bus station I used my broken Spanish to order a hot chocolate. The waiter didn’t understand, until he exclaimed “Ah! Submarino!” and brought me a glass of hot milk and a small tablet of dark chocolate, explaining the chocolate is the ‘submarine’, and should be “sunk” into the hot milk. It was delicious!

Conor: TGI Friday’s in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia – in an austere desert kingdom, I was surprised to find an all-American chain staffed by flamboyant Filipino waiters!

Shona: This is more of a day of eating than just one meal! I joined a food tour in Guadalajara, Mexico, which involved a walking tour of the city while sampling various Mexican delicacies including tortilla soup, tortas ahogadas (a drowned sandwich), and enchiladas.

Chongqing hotpot - a fiery communal broth

Chongqing hotpot – a fiery communal broth

Eleanor: In Chongqing, I went out for hotpot with two local girls. The dish is a fiery communal broth which is kept at boiling point and has all manner of things dipped into it: from crab sticks, tofu, mushrooms to and lotus root, duck gizzards, chicken’s feet. It was great fun but I can’t say I was a great fan of the chicken feet and I literally left in tears the hotpot was so spicy!

Dan: The vegetable biryani at the little green restaurant next to the Taj Club House in Chennai. Definitely a landmark if you like biryani.


Surprising locations

Nick: I wasn’t sure what to expect from Islamabad and was quite surprised to find a well laid out city which appeared, on the surface at least, to be calm and tranquil. The Margalla Hills which loom over the city are beautifully green and everyone I met was friendly.

Rachel: The UAE – it was a place I’d had no great desire to visit, thinking it would be a little soulless and that I would struggle being a woman travelling on my own but in fact I found it a very comfortable place to be and there were lots of interesting places to visit, not just designer shopping malls.

Conor: N’Djamena in Chad – I expected squalor and overcrowding, but the downtown boulevards were quiet and walkable and the garden cafes might have been in Thailand.

Palau in the Pacific Ocean is much more developed than you might imagine

Palau in the Pacific Ocean is much more developed than you might imagine

Shona: Koror, Palau – given its remote location (the Western Pacific), I expected it to be much less developed than it was. It was very tourist-friendly. I was even more surprised to find my taxi driver from the airport, who spoke no English, playing the Disney’s ‘Frozen’ soundtrack in his car and singing along.

Hugh: I was quite surprised by Apia in Samoa. Everybody was really friendly and it had a great, laid back atmosphere.  Driving through the little villages you see welcome banners made by the local schools with bunting hanging from the trees. Also, the policemen wear skirts.

Eleanor: Dushanbe in Tajikistan – I didn’t really know anything about the country before I went, but imagined it to be stark, grey and bleak. It’s true that it’s one of the poorest countries in the world and does have an element of ex-Soviet-ism about it, but I will never forget the sheer joy of arriving to find a backdrop of green Alpine mountains and a quiet city filled with tulips.

Mark: Kampala in Uganda – I was expecting a run-down, disorganised, clamorous, dirty city, typical of much of Sub Saharan Africa. However, the locals were possibly the friendliest I can remember ever meeting and the tree-lined avenues of the Kololo area were a joy to wander.


Favourite journeys

Nick: The taxi journeys in beat-up old cars through both Alexandria and Cairo were pretty terrifying, and crossing the road in Egypt takes a bit of practise.

Rachel: On a night flight home from Curacao opening the window blind to peek out and seeing Ursa Major (aka the ‘plough’). Plus the air hostess gave me a goodie bag full of treat-size chocs because I’d given up my seat so a couple could sit next to each other.

Conor: I like to explore cities on foot, but this was next to impossible in Saudi Arabia because of the 40-degree heat, urban sprawl, speeding traffic and lack of footpaths. The many security cordons criss-crossing downtown Manama didn’t help matters in Bahrain either!

Shona: The journey from the airport in Freetown, Sierra Leone – the airport is located across the estuary from Freetown so it’s necessary to get on a boat to reach the city. I arrived just after sunset so it was a slightly unnerving experience handing money over, climbing onto a boat and sailing off into the darkness.

Hugh: I’ve had my fair share of hairy taxi rides but one in Algiers stands out. The driver seemed to enjoy watching me squirm when undertaking cars along the hard shoulder at a ridiculous speed. I found myself praying for a traffic jam!

It's really quite surreal zooming through the countryside at over 300kmh in a Japanese bullet train

It’s really quite surreal zooming through the countryside at over 300kmh in a Japanese bullet train

Eleanor: The short train journey from Chongqing to Chengdu, is gorgeous. It passes through China’s amazing rural scenery – green fields, narrow conical hills and tiny, remote villages – which look like something from an ancient painting.

Mark: My favourite journey has to be travelling on the famous Japanese bullet trains. It was my first visit to the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ and was quite surreal zooming through the countryside at over 300km/h.


Great for expat shopping

Nick: The tiny ‘Rue 9’ in Cairo is tucked away in a corner of the affluent Maadi district and stocks lots of forbidden fruit (pork and alcohol!), as does the Qatar Distribution Centre in Doha.

Rachel: The El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookshop in Buenos Aires – one of the ‘most beautiful bookshop’ in the world, and I can see why. Laid out in a former theatre, it really is splendid.  I wish all our expat bookshops were like that!

Conor: The Saudi shopping centres were impressive. Enormous, immaculately clean and with a product selection rivalling anything in Europe – except alcohol or pork.

The supermarkets in Port au Prince, Haiti, are surprising well stocked

The supermarkets in Port au Prince, Haiti, are surprising well stocked

Shona: Port au Prince, Haiti – I was surprised by how well stocked the supermarkets were compared to other Caribbean locations especially because Haiti is so associated with extreme poverty. The number of expats in the country ensures that the supermarkets are filled with international goods and remain very clean.

Hugh: The small port city of Lae (Papa New Guinea) appeared quite run down with not much going for it. I was therefore surprised to find Andersons Foodland, which had a great selection of imported groceries, and a better choice than was available in the capital, Port Moresby.

Eleanor: Bamburies in Bangalore was definitely my most exciting shop of the year. Pork and beef can be tricky to find in India but, after days of no luck, I walked into this unassuming butcher’s shop and found all the pork, beef, fish and good quality meat an expat could ever want. The owner was a bit nonplussed by my enthusiasm!

Dan: Esajee & Co in Islamabad, Pakistan. Tiny place, stocked with all sorts of expat comforts. Unfortunately, from a research point of view, not a price in sight!

Mark: After spending a couple of days in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, and finding little in the way of home comforts for expats I came across Le Café Gourmand. Stepping into it away from the chaos of the dusty, noisy city centre I found myself surrounded by expats and locals with their laptops making use of the free public Wi-Fi. Also, it surely has the finest pain au chocolat to be found on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.


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