4 Days in Kigali

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Lounge at Pili Pili

Day 1: Flight to Kigali + Check in at Pili Pili

There were three of us so we eschewed a traditional hotel in favor of a bed and breakfast-type accommodation. Pili Pili was perfectly delightful – although as a popular restaurant/club, it was also quite loud on some nights. Still, we appreciated the amenities and it was convenient to pop in for breakfast or a snack when we were too pressed for time to go anywhere else.

We settled in and had dinner at Poivre Noir, a Belgian/French restaurant with a great wine selection.

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Inema Arts Center

Day 2: Art + Heaven

For a country that was devastated by political turmoil and genocide less than 30 years ago, Rwanda’s capital is remarkably well-maintained. The roads are clean, the people are friendly, and the city is so safe that you might even call it boring. The vibe almost reminded me of another capital city that is so safe and clean that my love for the absurd and peculiar felt like a stain against a sterile backdrop; so maybe Kigali is the Ottawa of Africa (speaking as someone who has been to precisely two African countries).

It’s not to say that the merits of creative expression are lost on Rwandans. Our first stop was at Inema Arts Center, a gallery and workspace founded by two brothers and self-taught painters. It’s a beautiful space full of contemporary art and even garnered enough interest to warrant coverage by the New York Times.

As a compulsive shopper living in an increasingly overflowing box that I call home, the purchase of souvenirs is out of the question, but I allow myself a painting here and a sculpture there while travelling. This was one of the many times in Rwanda that I wished my suitcase was infinitely larger so that I could bring a few pieces back with me.

Lunch was at Heaven, a restaurant and boutique hotel opened by an American couple who wanted to create a business that also provided vocational training and employment for young adults in Rwanda. There’s a lot of social enterprise in Kigali – it was my reason for being there too.

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4 Days in Kigali

2 Days in Doha

There are no direct flights from New York to Kigali so we chose to fly through Doha. We took advantage of a Qatar Airways offer that provides a free night’s hotel if you do a stopover with them. Our one night in Doha unexpectedly turned into two nights after a series of misunderstandings but I was glad to see more of the city.

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View of the Pearl region

Day 1 – Museum of Islamic Art + Souq Waqif

We stayed at Fraser Suites per our Qatar Airways offer in the old part of town, which was close to the Museum of Islamic Art and Souq Waqif. The Museum was a 10-minute walk away but Doha is not really a walking city and it felt a bit strange to be constantly walking amongst cars trying to park and wondering whether the sidewalk would continue after the next intersection. Expect to be taking Uber or taxis most places – it’s very affordable.

Like many other structures in Doha, the Museum is an architectural marvel. The inside is even better than the outside. My favorite exhibits were on the second and third floor where there were fewer tapestries and more sculptures and jewellery. It’s always delightful to see pieces from a dozen centuries ago and it looks like something you could pick up tomorrow from Neiman Marcus.

Souq Waqif is a century-old bazaar that’s probably the only place in Doha that retains traditional Qatari architectural style. As you might expect, the souqs sell artisanal crafts, jewelry, clothing, and perfumes. As you might not have expected, they also sell pets – there were probably more birds than people there. Events are also held there, including a yearly spring festival.

This was my first time in the Middle East and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect re: modest clothing and alcohol rules. It seemed like there was a mix, almost 50/50, between people wearing Western-style clothing and religious dress. Bars and restaurants serving alcohol are almost exclusively in hotels. You won’t be popping into a pub for a pint in Doha.

We treated ourselves to dinner at Nobu, which was housed in the Four Seasons. Best crispy rice I’ve ever had.

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Katara Cultural Village

Day 2 – Katara Cultural Village + the Pearl

For our second night, we decided to move to West Bay, which is the modern part of Doha. My American Express Platinum card got us an executive suite at the Ritz-Carlton at a shockingly reasonable rate. West Bay and the Pearl region is full of luxurious skyscrapers, each with a more interesting design than the last. It kind of reminded me of the Bund in Shanghai – not particularly cultural but impressive and beautiful (so naturally, it’s where all the expats live).

The Pearl is a manmade island that hosts a number of high end restaurants and boutiques. It is essentially a fancy outdoor mall along with some residential areas (that allow ownership by foreigners, making it another popular area for expats). Although, the Pearl looks very built up already, there is still some construction left to do – with an estimated cost of $15B when it’s all finished.

The Katara Cultural Village is almost like a boardwalk. It runs along a beach and is home to a number of restaurants and shops. It’s quite tourist-y and meant to be that way. Free guides in the form of golf carts and drivers pick you up and take you around, pointing out each attraction with about as much enthusiasm as you might expect for a Lebanese restaurant in Doha. We visited Doha amidst its National Day celebrations so there were a few extras – like the camels featured in the photo above.

If we had more time, I would have loved to visit more museums – like the Sheikh Faisal Museum, which my friend described as “a hoarder’s dream house”.

All in all, I wouldn’t be dying to go back to Doha but it’s not a bad place for a short stopover. We were vaguely familiar with the political issues going on with Qatar, particularly over the FIFA World Cup, which Qatar is meant to host in 2022. However, there was really no mention or tension about this in Doha. Culturally, Doha is well-equipped for tourism and the locals were generally friendly, or at the very least, unbothered by foreigners.

2 Days in Doha

7 days in Panama & Costa Rica

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Aerial view of Taboguilla Island

Day 1: Flight to Panama City

We caught an early morning flight from New York to Panama City, landing around 3:00pm. It was an easy Uber to reach our accommodations – by the way, Uber Panama has an option to select an English-speaking driver for a marginally higher price but don’t bother – you’ll be waiting for Godot.

We resisted the shiny new city center and opted to stay in Casco Viejo, the historic district. A two-bedroom suite at La Isabela housed the three of us comfortably with room to spare. I would happily stay there again.

Glitzy hotels with brands you’d recognize are plentiful in the city center and surprisingly, much more cost-efficient than options in Casco Viejo. However, after visiting the city center, I stand by our choice to stay in the historic district. Alongside the Waldorf and Hilton, the city center hosts grey office buildings and American clichés like the Hard Rock Café and Hooters. The area lacked Casco Viejo’s charm and elegance. Plus, all the nightlife is in the old part of town.

After checking in, we had dinner at Caliope, which was only a few minutes walk from La Isabela – that’s the other great thing about Casco Viejo, everything is concentrated in one corner so we never walked more than five minutes to get to our next destination. The food was exquisite and the atmosphere even better. Would highly recommend making a reservation.

We were there on a Tuesday so the nightlife wasn’t exactly at its peak. But we checked out a few spots if only to familiarize ourselves with the area. First, we stopped at Casa Casco, a rooftop bar so chic that you’ll feel like the glass elevator is actually teleporting you to Miami. Next, we went to Gatto Blanco, which turned out to be a bit much if you’re pushing 30 and it’s a weeknight. Right next door to Gatto Blanco is Tantalo, the perfect medium between hip and handsome.

Continue reading “7 days in Panama & Costa Rica”

7 days in Panama & Costa Rica