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.

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