Serena Hotels: Opulence amidst squalor and bloodshed

Anyone for a game of badminton and a round of emerald-hunting in Pakistan’s Swat Valley? Or perhaps you fancy a beach resort on the shores of Lake Kivu, just minutes from the Democratic Republic of Congo?

The March/April issue of Foreign Policy features an interesting story and photo gallery on the luxury Serena hotel chain, which they dub the “Ritz Carlton of Failed States.” The chain, which originated in Africa in the 70s, operates luxury hotels in a variety of dodgy places, including Pakistan, Kabul, Rwanda, Tajikistan, Mozambique and others. The Serena hotels are operated by an economic development fund founded by the Aga Khan, a spiritual leader for Shia Ismaili Muslims.

FP reports the Kabul Serena (see photo above), which has been attacked three times has rooms that start at $356 per night. The chain has been criticized for partnering with the Assad regime in Syria on the development of hotels in Damascus and Aleppo, but Aga Khan told FP that the company’s involvement in conflict zones brings “an investment seal of approval” that helps attract more foreign investment. The hotels also create jobs in countries with high unemployment.

But is there something unseemly about a luxury hotel which features “holistic health and wellness services,” a pastry shop, swimming pool, a “mind, body and spirit spa,” and other amenities in an impoverished, failed state like Afghanistan? FP’s slideshow juxtaposes scenes of opulence at the Serena hotels with images of children sorting through trash, smoldering buildings, and tin roof shacks.

One can certainly quibble with the high prices and unnecessary luxuries of these hotels, but the notion that aid workers, journalists, government officials, and businessmen should stay in slum-like conditions while traveling to conflict states is far-fetched. The reality is that many of these people are stuck in very primitive, dangerous conditions, sometimes for weeks, months or even years, and only get to repair to places like the Serena hotels for well-deserved R & R’s.

I certainly wouldn’t begrudge a Medicins Sans Frontieres volunteer who spent the last six months treating sick children in the Congo a long weekend at the luxury Serena resort in Rwanda. That said, a case can be made that holing foreigners up in luxury hotels allows them to exist in a fairytale bubble, where they are insulated from what’s going on in the country at large. What do you think?

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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World’s worst places: Top 10 places you do not want to visit in 2012

Update: Check out the World’s Worst Places of 2013 here

What comes to mind when you think of the world’s worst place? While it is easy to complain about rural Wal-marts, La Guardia, Applebee’s, and any government office with motor vehicle in its title, none of those places escalate the game from nuisance to immediate danger. All of them can be horrible, yes, but a threatened existence they do not pose.

The places on this list are the bad places. Some have run out of hope. Others have fought war for so long it is the new normal. Most are exceptionally dangerous and heartbreaking. And while none of them are fighting for write-ups by travel bloggers or inspiring travel with the NetJet set, some of these locations may someday be on the travel map. After all, it was not long ago that current hot-spots like Cambodia and Croatia would have made such a list.

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world's worst places

10. Harare, Zimbabwe
Recently voted by the Economist as the world’s worst city to live in, Harare is a unique study in failed fiscal policy. The once acceptable city fell into disrepair during Zimbabwe’s severe bouts with hyperinflation and corruption. The troubles began in the early 21st century when Zimbabwe’s inflation rate increased to 112.1%. Sounds terrible right? As it turns out, those were the sunny days. In 2008, the inflation rate peaked at 231,150,000% per annum. In U.S. terms, this means that if you deposited $10,000, it would be worth about 4 thousandths of a U.S. cent in one years time. That sucks. (For the record, 10,000USD = 46.720 quadrillion Zimbabwe dollars in 2009.)

This sort of economic arrangement allowed Harare to fail. There are not enough printers in Zimbabwe to print enough of its Z100 Billion notes, and when a loaf of bread costs trillions, doom is soon to follow. Unemployment grew to 80% and many services faltered. Today, foreign currencies have been adopted but the damage has been done. Much of Harare is in disrepair, and few foreign companies care to directly invest in the troubled city. That said, it is probably the safest place on this list to visit with flights direct from London on the national carrier – Air Zimbabwe.

world's worst places

9. Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
The lone entry from Oceania is the ultra-diverse Port Moresby of Papua New Guinea. PNG is home to over 820 languages – more than any other country in the world. As such, its capital Port Moresby boasts a diverse crew of opportunists and island cultures. It was recently voted by the Economist as the 137th out of 140 places in the livable cities index, making it a tough place to get by.

Rapes, Murders, and HIV are just a few of the daily tragedies that befall this enclave at the edge of the map. Here, even riding in cars is a dangerous activity. Gangs called Raskols are known to rob vehicles transporting foreigners at gunpoint.

Port Moresby is best used as a temporary gateway to nearby dive sites and for flights to PNG’s jungle interior and its solitary treks. Reaching Port Moresby is easy from Australia on PNG’s national carrier Air Niugini.

world's worst places

8. Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo
37 years ago, Ali and Foreman traded blows in one of boxing’s most historic matches. The match took place in Kinshasa. At the time, the country was known as Zaire, and the future looked hopeful for the mineral-rich nation. But as is common in 20th century African history, corruption at the top derailed the future. The country became a model for African kleptocracy as President Mobutu matched Zaire’s national debt with deposits into his personal bank account in Switzerland – to a tune of 4 billion (1980) U.S. dollars. He was forced to flee in the late nineties.

By 1998, the Congo region was engaged in the Second Congo War – the most deadly military conflict since World War II. In the end, over 5 million perished, and to this day the mineral-rich country has a per capita (nominal) GDP of about $186.

Chinese foreign direct investment has allowed Kinshasa to grow into a more reasonable place over the last decade, though it is not yet ready for its tourist close-up. Violence and political instability still ravage the second most populated city in Africa. It has come a long way from the time of Mr. Kurtz, but the heart of Africa is still an exceptionally complicated place. Just a month ago during the presidential election, thousands fled Kinshasa in anticipation of violence, and tanks rolled in to police the streets.

Tens of thousands of orphaned street children call the slums of Kinshasa home and are also routinely accused of witchcraft by locals. Carjackings are one of the more common types of tourist robbery, especially outside of the city center. And one more thing, photography is illegal.

Reaching Kinshasa is easy from Paris on Air France.

world's worst places

7. Rocinha favela, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rocinha is the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro. While its infrastructure exceeds that of lesser favelas and its view of Rio is truly breathtaking, it is also home to several hundred thousand Brazilians packed onto a steep hillside. It is a playground for modern day little Li’l Zes.

With one of the highest murder rates in the world, Brazil has been cracking down on violence in anticipation of hosting both the Olympics and World Cup. In fact, local authorities have effectively declared war on this slum in an effort to clean it up and push out the drug cartels, and just a few months ago, Rocinha was occupied by the military and police forces. Their aim is to restore government control in the sprawling favela. While progress has no doubt been made, when visiting Rio (which is generally safe), it is wise to avoid favelas unless accompanied by a local guide.

world's worst places

6. Sana’a, Yemen
“Just off the horn of Africa…” is a common statement that generally precedes a story about modern piracy. And just on the other side of the dangerous Gulf of Aden where such piracy goes down is treacherous Yemen – a land frozen in time.

It is a time machine to the modern edge of the Islamic dark ages. On one hand this brings old world Arabian architecture and cultures of antiquity, but on the other, it brings out Islamic fanaticism. It is a place of child brides and a training ground for Al Qaeda. Men walk around freely with weapons per their religious rights, and these weapons range from the ubiquitous Jambiya to battle-worn Kalashnikovs. Sana’a is old, dangerous, and has its share of political unrest. As a westerner, you can keep your travel plans safer by avoiding Yemen.

The tragic thing about Yemen is that it possesses such beautiful sights. It has unbelievable Red Sea beaches, Socotra Island (Similar to the Galapagos and on my own personal travel shortlist), and old forts amid craggy mountains.

Reaching Sana’a, Yemen is possible from Dubai, Doha, London, and Sharjah.

world's worst places

5. West Point, Monrovia, Liberia
Clean water, electricity, basic services – all things we take for granted in the West. In the West Point area of Monrovia, a city named for James Monroe, these are luxuries. West Point, a peninsular slum jutting out into the Atlantic, is home to a special breed of disgusting squalor. Home to 75,000 Monrovians, it is one of Africa’s most notorious and crowded slums. Cholera is at an epidemic level, drug use is rampant, teenage prostitution is a commonality, and toilets are scarce. In fact, since it costs money to use neighborhood toilets, many Monrovians in West Point just crap in the streets or on the beach.

Vice did a great series on Liberia a few years ago. In the series, they meet with with an ex-war leader known as General Butt Naked – the commander of a group of child soldiers called the Butt Naked Brigade. He earned this name by charging into battle wearing only sneakers and his AK-47. Aside from sacrificing humans and partaking in cannibalism, he also regularly communicated with the devil. Today, he is a minister.

Delta flies from Atlanta to Monrovia, Liberia.

world's worst places

4. Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
Just as turbulence occurs where hot and cold air meet, similarly a point of human turbulence occurs in this nasty city where Mexico meets the United States. Drug violence, government incompetence, and poverty mix to form what has been called the murder capital of the world (this dishonor has since been ceded to Honduras). As drug wars continue to rage, Juarez continues to be a dangerous place. The drug cartels continue to fight for one of the most valuable things in the world – access to the United States narcotics market.

Neighboring El Paso, oddly, has one of the lowest murder rates in the United States. In fact, among major cities, El Paso is tied with Lincoln, Nebraska for having the lowest murder rate in the United States. It is indeed strange to have such a dichotomy separated by a river.

Flying to Juarez from a number of cities is easy, but don’t do it. Go to Cancun and fist pump instead.

world's worst places

3. Cite Soleil, Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Take one of the most damned places on the planet, knock the hell out of it with an earthquake, and you get the worst of Haiti – Cite Soleil. Port-au-Prince is generally a place of ephemeral hope and naked truths, and at its most rotten corner is this heartbreaking slum.

Cite Soleil is one of the largest slums in the northern hemisphere. It is a place where what you see is what you get, and what you see is abject third world poverty. The slum is void of sewers, schools, electricity, or healthcare facilities. It is the kind of place where relief workers are swallowed whole by the earth. In 2007, UN peacekeepers attempted to access the neighborhood and were welcomed with gunfire.

On top of this, many dangerous gang members escaped prison during the earthquake of 2010 and have returned to this crumbling slum. Reach PAP, Haiti from Miami on Insel Air.

world's worst places

2. Kandahar, Afghanistan
Surrounded by gorgeous mountains, it is a tragedy that Kandahar is so awfully dangerous. A one time trading center and strategic foothold, Kandahar is a victim of its perfect location between the world’s of East and West. It has been a point of interest since Alexander the Great stumbled upon it in the 4th century BC. For centuries, traders passed through this city when traveling between Asia and Europe. As result, wars have also passed through and control has changed hands over its centuries of existence, from Mongols to Arabs to Brits and beyond.

Kidnappings, suicide bombings, and other criminal activities have turned it into an absolute monster of a destination. War has a way of creating this sort of general lawlessness. Having a 28% national literacy rate does not help matters.

As a weird footnote, Kandahar has an Armani Hotel, though it is not licensed by Giorgio. Its TGI Fridays, once a bastion of Americana and cheese sticks in Afghanistan, has allegedly been shut down. One can reach Kandahar from Dubai on Ariana Afghan Airlines. During Taliban rule, Osama bin Laden used this airline for Al Qaeda operations including the smuggling of guns, money, and opium. Today, sanctions have been lifted against the troubled national carrier.

world's worst places

1. Mogadishu, Somalia
Still crazy after all these years, “Mog” has perhaps the most terrifying disclaimer (ever) hovering above its entry on wikitravel. It states, “Mogadishu is regarded as the most lawless and dangerous city on Earth and is currently experiencing a major food and refugee crisis. It is not safe for leisure or tourism. If you are planning a visit for international aid work, etc, you will need expert advice and planning.”

Civil War has raged for decades, and the government controls only a few blocks of the city. It is a base for modern pirates, the backdrop for the true story surrounding Black Hawk Down, and it is said that machine guns are frequently used by drivers to negotiate through car traffic. It is a land without law, a soulless place at the edge of Africa. Much of it bears more resemblance to the last level in an especially difficult video game than to life on Earth. It is more modern warfare than modern world.

Oddly enough, several supermodels were born in Mogadishu including Iman and Yasmin Warsame – a footnote of beauty for an ugly place. Flights to Mog can be booked on Jubba Airways from Jeddah and Dubai. Good luck with that. Seriously though, if you decide to go, be sure to wear a bulletproof vest and hire a small army of Ethiopian soldiers.

African governments doing more to stop poaching of endangered species

poaching, rhinoThis year in Africa, the fight between law enforcement and poachers of endangered species has flared into a war.

In the first two months of 2011, nine poachers were shot dead in South Africa. Despite this, poaching is up. In that nation alone, 333 rhinos were killed in 2010, and there have been 309 rhinos poached so far this year. It looks like the illegal hunters are set to break a grisly record.

Now South Africa is holding talks with Vietnam to reduce the demand for rhino horn, which some Asians use as an aphrodisiac and as a cure for cancer. Sometimes the horns are kept whole as curios or for religious rituals, as this 1930s photo of a Tibetan monk from the Bundesarchiv shows. The two governments are working on a plan to fight organized syndicates that trade in animal parts.

South Africa isn’t the only country seeing trouble, and isn’t the only country fighting back. In Zimbabwe, poachers have been poisoning water holes so they can kill animals silently and avoid detection by park guards. At least nine elephants, five lions, two buffaloes, and several vultures are known to have died.

Meanwhile, Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are going to sign a treaty to cooperate across their borders to stop poaching of mountain gorillas and other species. The treaty also sets up joint research and education about the region’s diverse flora and fauna.

Vice produces guide to Congo


It wouldn’t surprise me if Suroosh Avi ends up dead at the end of this series. A host and founder of the well respected Vice TV, Mr Avi recently made his way to The Democratic Republic of Congo — specifically, the conflict-ridden East Congo — to document the mineral trade currently pummeling the country.

Rich in a whole host of minerals that the rest of the world needs, regions of East Congo have been violently contested, with political, big business and humanitarian efforts pulling in all directions. The result is a country still entrenched in the past, with many workers surviving on scraps and widespread poverty

Vice begins their outstanding series in the segment above. The remainder of the series can be found on their site.

Explorers look to save elephants, end ivory trade

Two explorers hope to save elephants by ending the illegal ivory tradeTwo American explorers are heading to Africa today to begin an important expedition that could prove vital to the fight against the illegal ivory trade. Their five week long journey, dubbed the Elephant Ivory Project, may help to save herds of those creatures, which have come increasingly under attack from poachers in recent years.

Former National Geographic Adventurer of the Year Trip Jennings and partner Andy Maser are on their way to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they’ll spend the next few weeks backpacking through the bush on the trail of elephants there. The duo hope to collect samples of elephant scat from five distinct herds which will then be used to build a “DNA map” of the various pachyderms of the region. Armed with the DNA data that they collect, they further hope to be able to trace the routes of the ivory trade and cut them off before irreparable damage is done to the DRC’s elephant herds.

Despite laws to the contrary, the demand for ivory is on the rise, particularly in Asia and the U.S. Because there is a great deal of money to be made in dealing in ivory, poachers will take great risks to sneak into protected areas in order to kill elephants and harvest their tusks. This practice has put the large creatures in jeopardy in a number of places in Africa, and the poor countries there often lack the resources necessary to stop these illegal practices.
Jennings and Maser hope to raise awareness of the situation through their efforts, and to that end they will be posting updates to their website throughout the expedition. You’ll also be able to track their progress through the use of their SPOT Satellite Messenger and upon their return, they plan on creating a documentary about their experiences as well.

On a personal note, I recently came back from a trip to South Africa, where the subject of poaching is a major issue as well. I spent some time in Kruger National Park, where poachers focus more on rhinos, but still go after the elephants too. South Africa has recently made the move to increase the sentences and penalties for anyone caught poaching, but it hasn’t seemed to have had much of an impact thus far.

These animals are one of the greatest natural resources that African countries have, and they often play an important role in the ecosystems there as well. The thought that they are slaughtered needlessly is a disturbing one, and hopefully we can find ways to put an end to those actions before they cease exist at all.