Sunday, November 19, 2006

Notebook of a Return to My Native Land - part 4

Maior e Vacinado
  • Hepatitis A
  • Typhoid Fever
  • Meningococcal Meningitis
  • Diphtheria
  • Tetanus
  • Polio
  • Cholera
  • Hepatitis B (three injections)
  • Yellow Fever
  • Very large amounts of Lariam pills for malaria (interestingly enough, don't seem to have nasty side effects for me or Shahin, unlike many people we've spoken to).
  • First-aid kit, with hydration, salts, etc - still to be purchased.

My arms hurt. Note to self: next time don't leave it all for the last minute. In the context of vaccines, last minute is last two months, really. Otherwise you may end up leaving the clinic with a much lighter wallet, five injections on one arm, four on another, high like a kite and sick as a dog. And wondering if it is really all right to have that many injections in one go.

And remember to moan. I moaned so much that the very nice nurse Helga gave me some of the kiddies sweets. Result.

The Tide Has Turned

This Thursday two major milestones were achieved.

The first one happened in the morning, when I went to the Angolan embassy to collect our passports. On them, one can find a beautifully embossed sticker with the words "Angolan Visa". While holding it in my hands, I could feel my eyes getting slightly moist.

At that point, I had the time and peace of mind to reflect a bit on the whole visa process. To be fair to the Angolan government, they were extremely efficient: the process was detailed on the embassy's website (with the important exception of the 60 days "sell-by-date" rule); once we complied with the complex requirements, they produced a visa within three days; and they charged us 40 GBP each for it, which is in line with a Gambian visa. The two unfortunate key points where a) the lack of a tourist visa, which the government has already addressed by legislative means, and which hopefully will start to filter down to the embassies in the near future; and b) the difficulties of communication with the local contacts. No solutions for the latter as of yet.

The second major milestone was accommodation in Luanda. After finally managing to speak to my auntie Linda and my cousin Rosa, they were more than happy to have us for the time we need to stay in Luanda.

These two major achievements were only possible with the help of many, many people, to which we are very grateful.

My usual optimism was a bit dampened, as I remembered Rui's words. Elsa was bemoaning the difficulties their poor cousins were facing in trying to get home. Rui, making a muxoxo, said: "You think they're having a tough time now?! Just wait until they get to the Banda!". Banda is how Angola is affectively known.

Still, I continue to claim the whole affair as a huge victory of desenrascanço over planning.

Shahin protests most vehemently.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Notebook of a Return to My Native Land - part 3

A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving. -- Lao Tzu


Lau Tzu must have been Angolan.

The Angolan Triangle

One interesting thing we found with Angola, Luanda in particular, is how hard it is to communicate with people down there. Around here we're used to getting replies to emails in matter of minutes or hours. If you send an email to Angola it will most likely be days or weeks until you get a reply - if indeed you get a reply at all. This is partly to do with the Angolan-speak (see part 1). But there's something deeper. Sometimes you meet what appears to be a really good contact, with impeccable references; you speak to the contact several times when he/she is in Europe; you get everything agreed and start allowing yourself some hope; only to stop hearing from the contact as soon as he/she boards the TAAG plane. Literally. The first few times this got us worried, "Jesus are they OK?". We soon got used to it.

Much like Bermuda, Angola has a triangle of its own. But, being Angolan, our triangle is intermittent. Sometimes it malfunctions and you suddenly hear from people you thought were long gone. Sometimes you receive a reply to an email sent many, many days ago, which you had forgotten all about. Unfortunately, odds are the answer is "sorry, no can do".

If you stop hearing from us for a while, don't worry: we've probably been got by the Angolan Triangle.

The other interesting thing we've learnt about communication is the importance of mediation. This, in typical Angolan fashion, is counter-intuitive. Around here we think that, the shorter the path between you and the person doing the work, the better. Not so with Angola. Much more important than that is having someone you know really well chasing someone they know really well. It is amazing how one can get a large chain of people connected like this to work; but, were you to try chasing someone you don't know that well directly, the odds of getting anything done are very close to zero.

Proxima Estacion Esperanza

The Angolan visa has been in our minds quite a lot of late. After the previous problems with the invitation letter (see part 1), we got my cousin Elsa involved. Between Elsa and Rui we had contacts in every Angolan embassy on the planet. But first we had to get the invitation letter sorted out. Elsa's grandma has been in Angola since the beginning of time but she decided to stick to her Portuguese nationality. This was a precious advantage because Portuguese citizens don't need to send an authenticated copy of the passport (but they do need to attach a copy of their residence card). So Elsa convinced her grandma to send us the invitation letter and associated paperwork via her young cousin Claudia (one of the twins). If you recall, in addition to having the fax sent to the embassy, we also had to bring a faxed copy with us. This complicated matters somewhat as the only inbound fax we had available was at Shahin's work, miles away from both our house and the embassy.

The clock was ticking. Communication was slow as we were going through Elsa to speak to Claudia. And to make things even more exciting, Elsa's phone decided to die right in the middle of our discussions. At the time Elsa was working far from Lisbon so there was no other way of getting to her. After a day and a bit of much stressing, we finally managed to reach Elsa in Lisbon. Elsa had indications from Luanda that the fax had already been sent, but not to Shahin's work. However, she suspected the indications were not totally accurate. We were fast running out of time. The visa could potentially take up to two weeks and we had two weeks and a bit left; and we also had to worry about the Mozambican visa too. So Monday was, in our minds, the make-it-or-break day.

The day started with a lot of messing around, both with the invitation letter and with the collection of the remaining documents. Even the English were against us, and my employer references turned out to be a lot more involved than expected. Shahin spent so much time sorting my letter (don't ask) that she didn't have enough time to pick up hers. We finally got to the embassy, just before 12:00 PM, with most of our paperwork filled in, but we still had no way of knowing if the invitation letter had been sent.

Shahin had been to the embassy before and was convinced that there would be no queues. I know, I know. Under normal circumstances I would have insisted in going for the usual Portuguese queuing hours - i.e. no later than 06:00 AM for a 09:30 AM opening time, if you want to have a chance in heaven of being seen on that day. (This reminds me of that time when I was queueing outside the Portuguese embassy, around 05:30 AM; an English couple walked past and asked "what demonstration are you guys organising?" "No mam, we here for the Portuguese embassy, 60 metres down the road. Yes mam, this many of us. Yes mam, we are aware that, like every other embassy, it only opens after 09:00 AM"). Now, if you recall, the consulate shuts at 13:00 for visas. But since Shahin had been there before and at the time there were only three people in the whole of the consulate, we were still hopeful.

And then we opened the door.

I know of several Portuguese clubs that would have been well happy with that kind of crowd in home games. You sure can fit a lot of people in a small room. (Mind you, this crowd was several orders of magnitude smaller than the crowds in the Portuguese embassy on a slow day). Like good obedient British-ised citizens we took our tickets, went to a corner and watched the numbers on the screen. Time went by. The numbers weren't moving. But people were going to and fro, to the counter and back. We soon understood how the informal queueing worked and went along with the program. Fortunately, our queue was the smallest.

Shahin begs to differ: "While Marco believed that he was waiting patiently for his turn, I was quick to realise that the Angolan's were surely not that organised. The guy with twenty different coloured tickets kinda gave the game away! Marco, by the looks of it still a bit lost, was being slowly nudged by me into the queue... I had to explain to him that the whole thing was pretty messy so our best bet was to stay as close to the front and pray."

While we were queuing I kept on staring at the girl behind the counter. Somehow, something kept on telling me I'd seen her before. Finally, around 12:45 we got seen. And wouldn't you know? The consular affairs representative was none other than Carla, from da 'hood. Lordy Lord, we never lost faith in You.

But Carla had some bad news: we needed Shahin's employers reference, the fax hadn't arrived yet, and she could not keep the application forms without both documents. She also asked if I had my Angolan birth certificate, which could potentially make things easier. I didn't have a birth certificate, but I vaguely remembered mom mentioning something about having the Church's "Cedula de Baptismo".

When we went back home, I asked my mom (via my nephew Mauro) to fax the "Cedula de Baptismo". We returned to the embassy on Tuesday - 09:00 AM on the dot this time, 6th in the queue. We got seen around 10:00 AM. Our fax still hadn't arrived. But, in a turn of extreme good fortune, Carla was able to enter me into the Consulate with the Cedula. This immediately made our life simpler.

Many, many forms and pounds sterling later, we managed to get our visa request in. And, because I am now registered in the consulate, it will be ready for Thursday. We won't celebrate until we get our passports back, of course.

As we were coming back from the embassy, around 12:00 PM, with that sort of high you get when you finish an important exam, I remembered Elsa's words: "The funny thing is, whilst its all done in the desenrascanco sort of way, and whilst it always seems as if everything is so hard as to be utterly impossible, for some reason, somehow, when all seems truly lost, something almost miraculous always happens in the last moment and makes everything all right."

Omnia mutantur, nihil interit, I quietly said to myself. And at that point I finally understood that the roots of my optimism are actually genetic.

Notebook of a Return to My Native Land - part 2

Sometimes I'm up and sometimes I'm down
Yes Lord, you know sometimes I'm almost to the ground
-- Louis Armstrong

Dog Years

Its funny how time flies. I mean, really. Our days are so densely packed with action that it feels like a week is at least a month long. An average day can entail going to the bank, printing and sending several letters, packing things, ringing 4 or 5 people - some of them on phone lines so bad you can't tell whether there is a person at the other end or if you're having a conversation with the echo of your own voice - and, on weekdays, spending nine hours at work. Our calendars are so full that we're even running out of time for fair well drinks. But the biggest problem isn't having so many things to do; its this unshakable sensation that we aren't actually getting anything done.

Take the VISA card mission, for instance.

One problem faced by all long term travellers is access to cash, to hard currency. Its one thing to go somewhere for three weeks and take money with you or pay extortionate credit card commissions; its quite another to take a wad of cash to last you six-months, or to pay ridiculous commissions for that long. For starters, you can imagine how many milliseconds a wad of cash would last in your pocket in downtown Luanda. So, intrepid Miss Begum conducted her usual thorough investigations and figured out that the cheapest way to survive out there is to have a VISA debit card.

We've been with our current bank for a good while. We like them, and they like us not-particularly-clever customer types too. We're not really the sort of people that like change, or that shop round when it comes to banks. Plus, they have a really well designed web-interface that works well with Linux. And they're fond of students. What's there not to like?

When we asked our old faithful bank for a VISA debit card, their answer was like something out of the Simpson's: a) "we don't understand your question; are you looking for a VISA credit card?" which quickly progressed to b) "nobody would ever need a VISA debit card! Switch and Maestro work everywhere!" and ended in apotheosis: c) "nobody else does these newfangled VISA debit cards anyways". The latter was particularly funny since we found out that their India operations use VISA debit cards - the only small catch is you need to open the bank account in India. And, yes, I did think "Indian bank account... How hard would that be?". Only for a split second. Shahin's slap brought me back to reality pretty quickly.

These problems and many others we've had in the recent past with companies such as Amazon highlighted a wider problem. The new global companies are great for 99% of the cases. Trouble begins when you want to do something slightly out of the ordinary. For instance, we tried to find out the bank's closest branch that opens on a Saturday. There wasn't a single person in India who was able to provide this information. And we did speak to all of them. (One member of staff even told us that a branch was open just to flog us off; needless to say, we got there and it wasn't.)

So it came to be that, having exhausted all the simpler avenues, we ended up trying to open a new bank account. We first wanted Lloyds TSB but we couldn't find any branches open on a Saturday. As we were walking back home in sheer desperation, we stumbled across Abbey National. To our surprise, they did provide their customers with shiny new VISA debit cards.

We then went through the motions. After what it seemed like hours of form-filling and question-answering, we were then very politely told that they could not give us an immediate answer - but would be in touch with us as soon as possible. "But, you do understand that we only need this card to withdraw money on holidays? We don't need an overdraft or anything! Can you not give us an answer right now?"

She could not. We would have to wait.

And all of this before 12:00 o'clock on a Saturday.

Saturday, November 11, 2006



If you're a gnomer, you're bound to know Lucas Rocha and his blog. I've been really enjoying his latest set of posts, which describe his move to Nokia, in Finland. Now his wife has also started a blog, but this one is in Portuguese. Make sure you check Diário de Cá.

If you don't know yet, both Rui and Dina have blogs (in portuguese). Dina's blog is Nascida Ontem and Rui's blog is Estrelas na Minha Coroa. Great pictures.

Miguel's diary has been an invaluable source of information about contemporary Angola: Sem Destino. The pictures are pretty cool too.

Last but not least, if you're a Microsoft-oriented nerd, be sure to check Scott's blog: Using Tangents.


If you're interested in the complexities of IT startup companies, you must read Paul Graham's essays on the subject.

A great insight on Google's development methodologies is available here: Good Agile, Bad Agile.

This is an old one by Herb Sutter, the C++ demi-god: The Free Lunch Is Over: A Fundamental Turn Toward Concurrency in Software.


We went to see a play called Township Stories. I cannot make justice in words to the excellence of this play. It paints a very vivid picture of life in South Africa's townships. Unfortunately, Presley Chweneyagae of Tsotsi fame was not around but I can't say his absence had a negative impact on the play; it was absolutely brilliant. We even had the usual running commentary from the African audience. An experience. If you have a chance, go and see it. Unfortunately, it wont be in the UK for long.


If you're interested in Google, David A. Vise's book is a good start: The Google Story. Not everything is perfect: in some parts the book is a bit too pro-Google; David is not exactly Steven Levy; and it's a royal pain in the backside to have to carry around an hardcover book. But, in balance, its worth the read.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Notebook of a Return to My Native Land - part 1

The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of heading home. -- Paul Theroux

Human Errors

So there you go. 8th of November is almost gone. That leaves us with another 21 days before we depart from sunny old Albion. And yes, we still haven't got a visa for Angola, nor accommodation for Luanda, nor any idea of how to get from Luanda to any of the provinces (the Angolan counties are known as "provinces"). How do two fairly experienced travellers get trapped into this situation? After all, me and Shahin, we've seen one or two countries in our time. How hard can it be to plan a six-month trip to southern Africa, right?

If you know me - and, chances are you do since you are reading this blog - then you also know that one of my most distinguishing traits is this extreme, unflinching (some would even say pathological) optimism. I'm the sort of guy that, having one day to plan an expedition to the Artic, would probably say "hey, how hard can it be, right"? A perfectly fine attitude to have when facing most day-to-day situations; alas, organizing a big trip is not your normal day at the office. But I digress. Lets return to the beginning.

I've been meaning to visit my country of birth since, well, pretty much since I've left it, many moons ago as a young kid. Somehow I've managed to convince sensible Shahin that this would be a good idea. She, in turn, managed to convince me that it would be wiser to also see a few other countries in the region rather than just plonk ourselves in Angola for a while. In the end, the choices came down to:

a) paying a deposit for an expensive, matchbox-sized, one-bedroom flat in zone 15 of the quaint but rather inefficient English transport system; or

b) fool ourselves into believing that the property ladder is actually not at all important, and instead spend six months seeing a bit of my continent.

Not much of a choice, really.

We started by investigating the visa requirements for all the countries we would like to visit. The list was long, but we somehow managed to go through it. A bit too quickly, perhaps. We concluded that, with a few exceptions, the visas were actually not that bad. South-Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, Zambia, Botswana and even Zimbabwe had fairly sensible visa requirements. Angola's was a bit more complicated but workable. So we went and booked the tickets. Yes, you read that right, we booked the tickets. Yes, before we got the Angolan visa. To the inexperienced this sounds like a trivial mistake, easily solved with a trip to the embassy; worst case scenario, a day-off wasted.

First big mistake.

In addition, we planned to go to Angola around March time. Now, since we aimed to leave the country around the end of November, that meant that we would only get to Angola more than three months after leaving London.

Second big mistake.

Lastly, we assumed we would be able to stay with family or friends in Luanda, or, worst case scenario, to find a cheap hotel. After all, anything will do for a couple of tired backpackers.

Third, very, very big mistake.

Anatomy of a Visa

As anyone who has done real travelling knows, visas are actually a tricky beast. Not the less seasoned traveller, however. He takes them for granted even without realising. For example, he may assume that all countries have a tourist visa. He may assume you can get a visa in any embassy of the country you wish to travel to. Or he may assume that, once you have a visa, that's it, you're sorted.

Unfortunately for us, Angola did not have the concept of a Tourist Visa until very recently. In fact, as recently as two weeks ago. The next best thing is an Ordinary Visa. But don't be fooled by the name: there's nothing ordinary about it. To get one of these, one needs to have an invitation letter. The gist of the invitation letter is that an Angolan citizen, or a foreign citizen residing in Angola, guarantees the stay of the person requesting the visa. The letter must be faxed to the embassy from an Angolan telephone number. If the person sending the invitation letter is Angolan, you must also include a photocopy of the person's passport, authenticated by notary. Getting one of these photocopies would set you back at least 10 EUR and one or more days of queuing. In addition, the person requesting the visa must also bring a copy of the letter with them. And, to make things more interesting, the consulate only receives applications on Mondays and Tuesdays, from 09:00 to 13:00. That is, of course, excluding all English and Angolan public holidays. And, oh, you must also bring the plane tickets with you, so abandon any ideas of getting a visa before you buy the tickets.

Luckily we know a lot of people in Angola. We'll expand on that in a moment. For the time being it suffices to say that our friends Lau and Leonor live there. So, we thought, lets ask them for the invitation letter. That's when Lau mentioned that we could not possibly be trying to get a visa for March next year since visas had a 60-day expiration. "No, it can't be", we protested. "The UK Angolan embassy website explains the visa process fairly well and there was no mention of an expiration date". We held steady, convinced against hope that this was, perhaps, a quirky behaviour of the Angolan embassy in Portugal. So we rang the embassy in the UK, and after many, many attempts, we got through to the consulate. The consulate dutifully informed us that, yes, Lau was right. "But can we at least get a visa from South-Africa or Namibia?" Best to check with the embassies in those countries, but, no, not very likely. So we rang these embassies. It turns out you can only obtain a visa from the embassy of your country of residence. In the words of one embassy worker:

"Para voce ainda se arranjava qualquer coisa, com um pouco de sorte, talvez um visto de emergencia... Agora para a inglesa, aih nao dah mesmo, a situacao estah bloqueada."

Which roughly translates to "perhaps for me they could, maybe, sort something out. But definitely not for the English woman". Shahin was out of luck. "Situacao bloqueada", or "the situation is blocked" has become one of the most heard phrases, and a bit of an in-joke for us these days. Leonor graciously offered us some contacts here in London, but to no avail.

We were stuck with tickets we could not possibly use. And refund is not a word travel agents know of.

The Angolan Dictionary

After much rumbling and thinking, Shahin found a solution. Whilst the travel agents were unwilling to refund the tickets, they would allow us to change the dates of the internal flights - for a modest fee, of course. In other words, we could go to Angola earlier on provided there were seats available.

To avoid getting into further problems, we decided to sort out the accommodation before changing the tickets. "Just in case; hey, you never know".

In fact, as we now know, accommodation in Luanda is an intractable problem. Leonor and Lau looked high and low for something for us, but nothing was to be found. We started panicking slightly: if two locals are saying hotels are really hard to find, maybe there's a bit of a problem? It turns out hotels in Luanda are scarce, and thus, horrendously expensive. Expensive beyond comprehension. And this is coming from a Londoner. In Luanda, you may count yourself lucky if you're paying 250 USD a day in a motel; some hotels charge 1000 USD a day. That is, if you can find a vacant room at all.

Ah, but I was prepared! Whilst I tried to avoiding bugging family and friends as much as possible, I reserved them for emergencies. And this sure was one. If there's anyone who knows people, that person is Mom. So I rung Mom and Mom rung and rallied all the Angolans. In the mean time, I rung my faithful cousin Elsa, ever helpful.

After patiently listening to my explanations, Elsa then, also patiently, explained the real meaning of words in Angolan Portuguese. This was a most enlightening experience. It is a common mistake people make to interpret literally things Angolans say. For instance, if someone says "if you come to Angola you can stay in my house", they are not actually saying that, were you to come to Angola, you can stay at their house. Instead, think of it a bit more like an Englishman says "How are you" when he greets you. He is not actually wanting to know how you are; its just a statement. It could have easily been "What a dreadful weather!". This applies to almost any Angolan statement of intention. For instance, if someone says "we'll see what we can do", this does not mean you don't need to worry about it and wait for them to come back to you. Instead, you can safely assume that nothing will happen unless you ring them 10 or 20 times.

Unfortunately, time was running out. And accommodation was not forthcoming. So we changed the tickets without having a place to stay.

Expect the Unexpected

The travel agents found us a ticket on the 11th of December. However, when we reported this to Lau, we then discovered that they were going to leave the country on the 8th of December. And we also discovered that its not a good idea to have an invitation letter sent by someone who is unable to pick you up at the airport. This is because the DEFA (the Angolan emigration service) may actually want to ring the person who sent you the letter. And they would not be entirely pleased when they found out that the person who sent you the invitation letter is actually not in the country. After all this trouble, being locked up in a room answering questions didn't sound very seductive.

So the only certainty we had until then, the invitation letter, was now lost. Now we were back to square one.

As I was explaining this to Lau, he said "yeah, I know. In this country, one cannot take anything for granted". And he told me about that time when, after much effort, he had secured a plane ticket to visit to one of the southern provinces in Angola. He had actually boarded the plane, and it appeared ready to take off. Then, on the last moment, an announcement was made: "O motor nao pega, o voo estah cancelado" ("The pilot can't get the engine to start, so the flight is cancelled"). I suppose he was lucky to find that out before the plane took off.

So we learnt another lesson: in Angola, always expect the unexpected.