“What is your favorite country?”

These words come gushing out in every conversation after the topic of how many countries I have visited comes up. Recently, the question about my most precious trips is asked almost as often as the opposite one: “What is the worst experience you ever had?”

Bad experiences are, often times, a matter of mismatched expectations rather than a destination being intrinsically unappealing; other times it is because the romantic idea of remote and isolated places does not translate into reality as good as it did in my mind. And finally, some of the places are just boring or too dangerous to be in. Sadly this is also a changing classification, Syria was a beautiful place not accessible anymore and I have several times been in a perfectly safe place when a coup or extreme violence exploded.

At its core, traveling is the ultimate personal opinion. Some of my favorite places were not intrinsically extraordinary but were made so by the people I met or the moments we shared. A few of my most precious trips were in places that I am sure feature in the most hated lists for other travelers. This is why I am eagerly waiting for the day when review sites would be able to say: “based on what we know you like you will enjoy this _______  (hotel, resort, place, restaurant…)”.

Back on the subject, it pays to know the individual before you take travel advise from someone so I have tried to list the places that, regardless of the type of traveling you like doing or the person you are, consensus would be not to go there.

Bahrain

countries to stay away from

Simply put, small and boring. There is little culture or sights to enjoy and the country is so small that you could see it all on a transit between flights. It is trying to emulate Dubai or Doha in creating an expat-friendly place with good shopping, ultra-luxurious hotels and a business-like mentality but it falls short in all three fronts making it a place you can easily skip.

Congo

Salonga National Park, Congo

Salonga National Park, Congo. Source

I would not return to Congo because the safety situation is precarious to say the least.

I was there for work and one morning, as we were stepping out of the hotel, we were greeted by a line of Kalashnikovs-wielding soldiers. Thankfully, they were not there to meet us, but they sure scared us to death. Some of my colleagues also caught an amoeba and had to be hospitalized for days when the little creature started to eat their livers. Yes these things exist beyond the X-Files. Luckily I didn’t catch it, I am convinced this is because my strategy of brushing my teeth in running water during my tenure in Africa helped me built resistance to all sort of bugs, but it did completely knock down my colleagues for days.

The airport was a terrible experience I do not wish on my worst enemy. On arrival we waited for hours in the extreme heat to get our passports stamped despite we had someone meeting us up with all paperwork in order and invitations from the country’s biggest company. There were no updates on what was happening other than very well fed officers standing around without doing much of anything. I am sure there were briberies involved in “speeding up” the process and perhaps that is why it took longer – maybe our contact tried to haggle until he finally conceded.

The departure was even more painful than the arrival. Going through the security check an officer tried to steal some clothes from my suitcase because “My daughter would like them” and even went through my wallet in an attempt to keep some of my foreign currency. I was not sure of what would happen if I said no but I still held my ground. The officer also had the guts to tear my passport apart accidentally and then give me a hard time for it threatening not to let me out. Admittedly, my battered passport stapled at 3 other had seen better days.

It is a pity because I do believe that Congo’s wildlife and the coast in Point Noire are fascinating but it is not a place I would recommend anyone going to until the situation improves. And by the way, I am sure this account is also applicable to the DRC.

Gambia

Banjul Arch, Gambia

Banjul Arch, Gambia. Source

I recognize my view is biased but Gambia brings very bad memories.

I visited Gambia on my first trip to Africa, more specifically, on a tour of Senegal. Gambia was not a destination on itself but we had to cross it to access the Southern part of Senegal.

Gambia is a very narrow country on the banks of the river of the same name. The river was thick brown and muddy and I am sure that I saw pieces of dead animals floating. The ferry was delayed and never fully docked so the only way out was to get into the water and board. I do not wish to know what was under my feet when I got in and I am glad that I did not catch any unidentified disease. There is nothing in the country other than the muddy river and a short strip of coast. Give it a miss.

Kuwait

Much like Bahrain, Kuwait is a very boring place unless you know people and you can immerse yourself into the local life and culture. To the untrained eye, there is no alcohol, no music and no fun. You have to develop true relationships before you get invited to private houses where the real parties happen, behind well-closed doors.

As per the sightseeing, the country has pretty beaches but they are not really enjoyable. Don’t expect to don your latest bikini. They might be sold at the high-end stores from the world’s most luxurious brands but they are meant to be worn in the Maldives not at the local beach. Your only bet at enjoying the Gulf’s sun are the high end hotels and, how much of that can one have? Did we mention you can go shopping? Kuwait is an oil-rich country and this is obvious at the many luxury malls. Pay attention to the Abaya wearing Kuwaiti women and you will see designer shoes and bags peering through the embellished black gowns.

As a visitor, life is 100% artificial so it holds limited interest to visitors. The only redeeming factor? The fascinatingly obvious scars of the Gulf War. Despite the dollar sign is obvious on the luxury cars, the prevalence of designer clothes and the jewelry stores displaying diamonds so big you would think they are fake, the war’s wounds are still open. Buildings facades have not been repaired and the potholes on main streets were not caused by rain but by falling bombs. It is a very stark reminder of the destruction brought on by wars, 25 years on.

Nigeria

Zuma Rock Nigeria

Zuma Rock Nigeria. Source

This is my least favorite country in the world and I will say it without a doubt because I gave it plenty of opportunities to show me a kinder and more appealing face and it never did. I also have the peace of mind that I am not alone on this one. Nigeria causes utter rejection on every person who has been there.

I will start by saying that I spent 3 months there on business going every week in and out of the country and I have absolutely nothing positive to write home about.

I could start with the obvious security problem. We were escorted from the airport by Kalashnikov-armed guards that had instructions not to stop at anything, and they didn’t. Our car would go behind theirs or sometimes the guards would be standing on the outside of our car. The windows were tinted so they could not see we were rich Western businessmen and women, a valuable kidnapping target. On our way back to the airport every week we would be stuck in the most horrendous traffic jams I have ever seen. Forget Jakarta, Manila or Dhaka, these were Biblical-proportion jams where we would get stuck for hours on end always holding our breath in the hope that no criminal would suddenly open the door and cut our hands off to steal our watches and jewelry. No amount of guards could save us from that because there was no moving back or forth, we were stuck like a tiny piece in a puzzle between hundreds of cars on the main bridge.

But, if that isn’t enough to deter you from going let me stress that the country is extremely ugly, dirty and permanently covered by a layer of pollution, humidity and dust that doesn’t let you see the horizon. The moldy and thick air is hard to breath in. The streets are filled with rubbish, plastic bags, animals scavenging for food and rotten vegetables. Even once you are on the “safer” island where most foreigners and businesses base themselves you can still be shot by an angry Nigerian trying to park his car. One day we were in the office when we heard shooting outside. Two people were arguing about a parking space and decided to solve the situation with guns. In my country we show the finger or yell if we are really angry. In Nigeria they don’t beat around the bush. Needless to say, we moved away from the window.

If you thought that was only Lagos and the rest of the country can still be saved you were wrong. In the delta, kidnappings are widespread so Lagos is actually not the worst part of the country. And in the north, religious and ethnic disputes are a ticking bomb ready to explode any time.

You will wonder, is that all? Am I exaggerating? I have always been attracted to the most random places; The more remote and harder to reach, the more bizarre and the more I get discouraged from going somewhere the more I want to go but Nigeria is sadly, hell on Earth. If all the above wasn’t enough, the power cuts, even in the higher end hotels, the constant buzzing of the generators, the risk of malaria, which a few acquaintances caught while having a drink by the pool, and the unappealing local food will complete the list of reasons not to go.

And even that is not all. When you are finally on your way home, the airport experience will reconfirm that the best decision you ever made was to leave. If Congo is corrupt, Nigeria is corrupt and scary. Every week they would coarse us for a bribe. Either because they couldn’t find our booking (with a manual system this is actually a lottery of sorts), or the immigration officer didn’t like our face, or the security officer wanted to keep our belongings…every week was a real obstacle race of rude, aggressive and simply scary officials trying to extort us for money or things. A series of officers lined up to make sure our lasting memory topped the list of the most horrible airport experiences.

I remember I once read in a guide to Nigeria the sentence that sums it all up: “Do not go”.

South Sudan

South Sudan

South Sudan. Source

Whereas I hold a special place in my heart for North Sudan mostly because of the kindness of the people and their fascinating past and culture I can’t say the same about the South.

My trip did not start off well. At check-in in the wee hours of the day when it was still dark the domestic terminal looked like a farm. Passengers were carrying produce and I even saw one sliding a live goat through the x-ray machine. The trip continued on a high note when, on the approach to landing in Juba, I experienced, for the one and only time in my life, the very imminent fear of death. I will never understand why the pilot decided to approach landing at extremely fast speed and with the airplane completely perpendicular to the ground until the very last minute. I saw people praying, holding their religious amulets and crying in the 5 minutes before landing. I was so shaken that for hours I could not speak. But if that wasn’t enough what was coming after confirmed this as the poorest, least developed and most savaged capital in the world. There are no paved streets except for the semi-road that connects Juba with the airport. In the city, the streets are potholed barren paths that can only be tackled by 4×4. Be prepared to hold on tight as your head bangs the car’s roof at potholes so deep that they could be a well.

There is no electricity at night, no law and no safety guarantee of any kind. The level of destruction is such that you would think you are in a small village in Darfur instead of the capital of the world’s youngest country.

Juba is not a place that I can recommend to anyone, even if the river is nice and the locals friendly. Stay away until safety improves and the country gets back on its feet. Right now, it is the most dangerous place on the planet where lawlessness and violence has taken over whatever dignity there was left. I hope this changes soon and its people can rebuild their hope but for now, stay away.

What are your worst travel experiences?

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