Thursday, December 28, 2006

Notebook of a Return to My Native Land - part 8

The Long Wait

We arrived in Luanda on the 11th of December, a rather cloudy day. The pilot circled above quite a few times, and, in perfect English - perhaps with a faint hint of an Afrikaans accent - he apologised again for the delay. As a prelude of things to come, we were stuck in a queue and were waiting our turn. Eventually we were given permission to land in airport 4 de Fevereiro (or 4th of February). For those who were not born in communist countries, there is a long standing tradition to name roads, airports and other important things after the nation's key events. For instance, avenue 17 de Setembro (17th of Setember) marks the death of the first president, Agostinho Neto - a great man. And 4th of February was the beginning of the long standing colonial battle, which then turned into a civil war. If you look carefully you can still see this in Portugal, the last legacy of the days when the communist party was in power: the bridge 25 de Abril (25th of April, the day the dictatorship ended), the odd streets named 1ro de Maio (1st of May, worker's day).

The plane descended and cut straight through the thick cloud cover. Luanda presented itself, like an artist waiting behind a curtain. It had been a long wait. I don't know precisely when I left Angola; I was young and all the papers we had about the departure have long been lost, so now its the stuff of lore. It must have been around 1981, but I remember very little. A quarter of a century later I was seeing the same sights, but instead of sad goodbyes this time I was saying hello. Luanda lays itself in a long, low-rise sprawl. The occasional high-rise pops up, and they are very high. From up above you can see many paved roads and many, many musseques (slums, bidonvilles; the Angolan Portuguese of the Brazilian Portuguese "favela"). Musseques are organic things: they are born, they grow, they reproduce, and, eventually, like all living things, they too die. And they always go out with a bang, with the most troubling spasms, involving huge amounts of violence. Near the airport there is a musseque. It has expanded so that it now borders the walls and fences of the airport. But, where the fences are more permeable, there is an open gateway for enterprising kids. And so, as the plane dragged itself to its parking spot, we went past kids playing football on the tarmac - at a distance, not too close to the planes. There probably are known territorial rules between the two worlds. The kids seem happy. Behind them there are huge amounts of makeshift houses with the colourful inventiveness that only the slum builder has, taking whatever materials are available and finding uses for it that stretch the boundaries of human imagination.

When we finally left the plane, we were greeted by the humid, very hot air of the luandan summer. The 27 degrees on the thermometer felt like at least 40. After a swift bus ride, we were taken to the main terminal. The terminal denoted its age, with a few water leaks. We were a bit apprehensive and didn't quite know what to expect, but we had been warned by everyone that immigration people liked to make things hard (the exact Angolan expression is "complicar"). As we were walking past, we noticed we had to go to a stand with a chap monitoring the yellow fever certificates. Thanks to the super organised Shahin, ours were in order, up-to-date and pristine looking. Lord knows I wouldn't have thought of that. But, if you take one piece of advise from reading this blog, take this: make sure you have your yellow fever certificate before you get into Angola or any other country that requires it - hey, there are not that many developed countries that have yellow fever. For if you don't, you will be locked in a room awaiting vaccination; and when your turn comes - it can be a while, days even - but when it comes, you will get vaccinated there and then. Of course, even more important than being vaccinated is having the precious yellow piece of paper that certifies you as being vaccinated. We saw a woman (probably Portuguese) frantically searching for hers, her hand luggage scattered on the airport floor, all the while sweating and swearing to the official "I've got it here, I'm sure it was here!". You can, of course, ignore good advice and try to use the most advanced skills of desenrascanco to get out of this one - we heard some great stories of desenrascanco warriors - but, if you want my honest opinion, I say get the vaccinations done and mind the certificate as if your life depends on it. It does.

Once that was sorted out, we went to the main passport queue. The queueing was nervous. Finally my turn came. Suddenly, at that point in time, when I was standing on my own, just me and the immigration official - as if a spotlight had been lit on the both of us and all the airport had gone quiet - suddenly it hit me the amount of power that these people have. This guy had all the power in the world. He could decide that they needed to check my passport more thoroughly and so lock me in; he could start asking questions as to why my passport states I'm Portuguese but born in Angola - did I run away? Did I commit any crimes? How did I get a visa without a Letter of Invitation? All these thoughts were racing in my head. Pure paranoia, of course, I kept on telling myself. In the end, he asked a couple of questions but nothing difficult and waved me through. Then it was Shahin's turn. The snag here was that I was told on no uncertain terms to move on; but Shahin does not speak Portuguese (although she understands most of it) and the immigration official did not speak English either. So I kind of moved on but stayed behind the scenes, literally behind the immigration official, and acted as the invisible translator. It would have been funny were it not for the fear of God we both felt. "So you're English, right? But you're trying to fool me, you can't be English, you look like an Arab". Sweat drips down my hair as I hear this. I search for the best, most adequate, most polite Portuguese words I can think of. "Ah boss, she was born in England but the family comes from Bangladesh". Long Pause. "Ah, of course, you see you can't fool me. That's India, right? I knew she was not English." And with this, he let her through.

When we got in to the luggage area, the usual chaos was ensuing. We waited and waited, and just as our luggage was coming out, I heard my name being called out: "Paulo! Paulo" (for those who know me as Marco, most of my family calls me Paulo). I of course ignored it, can't be for me. But turns out it was: my cousin Ica, with the help of his never ending contacts, managed to get in to the luggage area and was here to pick us up. It was great. We just got waved through everywhere, and where before we saw only closed doors and sheer fear, now there were only smiles and open doors. Ica seemed to know everyone, from the security guards to the immigration officers to the police officers. He worked the room as if in a cocktail party, talking, praising, asking questions about the family, ensuring everyone was alright. Eventually we got to the exit where my cousin Rosa awaited us, in a nice car. I finally allowed myself to relax. The long wait was over and we were now officially in Angola.

The ride back from the airport was a great metaphor for life here, as all the core ingredients were out on display. First, the traffic was horrendous. As we found out later on, this is pretty common in Luanda and the roads are constantly jam packed full of cars. Second, unlike in other countries, in Angola you don't just wonder how the other half lives. Its right there, right in front of your eyes. People are everywhere in the streets. Not many beggars, mind you, but many people trying to make a living any way they can. Black faces that, at dawn, overspill from the musseques into every conceivable space in the town centre; and, at dusk, repeat the peregrination in reverse, hopefully now with a little less merchandise and a little more money. Women walk around, up and down the streets, routing around holes and traffic, all the while balancing impossible weights on their heads and carrying the kids on their backs - the trapeze artists in this great circus of survival. The streets are full, brimming, throbbing with life. The traffic in Angola is composed almost exclusively of three types of cars: the blue and white candongueiros, Angola's name for the universal mini-bus of Africa - the Toyota Hiace; the taxis, mostly unmarked Toyota Starlets, distinguished only for their mashed up state and their crazy, rally-like drivers; and, finally, the big shinny new jeeps and SUVs. The later come in all shapes and sizes, and constitute probably about fifty percent of all cars on the roads. Now, this is amazing, considering that the roads are full of cars. Luanda is a bit like an open air 4x4 auto show. You can see every model ever built here, with huge emphasis on the latest and the greatest. I have seen many cars in Luanda that I never saw before - either in Europe's capitals or Africa's. And this is a great reflection of the state of things: you either have a Prado or you fight the crowds to get into the candongueiro. There's nothing in between. No one owns a Nissan Micra. No one has a Ford Fiesta.

We got to Tia Linda's house, where, as we were told in South Africa, a room had already been prepared for us. From an European perspective, Tia's house is large, but otherwise fairly standard. All the mod-coms are available, such as Air Conditioning. However, after backpacking, the only way to describe it is as absolute comfort.

Sketches of Modern Luanda

From "Chechnya" to the new Sonangol building, Luanda is a city of contrasts. But my original impressions where perhaps a bit too harsh on the country. After a few days of living here, one starts to understand the city better. It does take a few days to be able to start appreciating life unfolding around you as you walk. It is much easier from a car - with someone else driving - but its very difficult to observe while you walk. The main reason is the sidewalks of Luanda are in a continuous state of construction. It is as if the entire population of the city's sidewalks is simultaneously being worked on - but no one is ever doing any of the work. There are holes everywhere you go, reminiscent of Maxine's potholes in Ecuador. So, when you are new to the city, you spend a lot of time looking at the ground. Ridiculous amounts of time. It is as if your primitive brain - the bit of you that knows how to walk without being instructed to lift one leg and then the other - decides that the problems its facing are far too complex for the simple algorithms it has learned in Europe and so, washing its hands from it, passes over the control to your conscious brain. This is why its impossible to observe, to maintain a conversation or a train of thought while you walk - you need all of your attention just to get by. There are a few sidewalks in a good state, but these are almost exclusively near government buildings, new company buildings or shinny new houses. The remainder of the sidewalks are filled with holes. And then there are the electricity cables. The first few days, as Ica was showing us around town, he warned with a serious tone: "when the rainy season comes, make sure you avoid all the puddles. They are quite lethal, as underneath there can be a live electricity wire. You step on one of those, and that's the end of it.". The other thing that takes a major toll on your brain's processing power is the traffic. Since many sidewalks are unwalkable, and many of those which aren't have so many cars parked on them as to make them unwalkable, you are frequently forced to go into the roads. This, in Luanda, is a serious undertaking, never to be underestimated. Not only do you have to face high-speed candongueiros and taxis, but the average Luanda driver in his or her's 4x4 also thinks they're Michael Schummacher. In fact, they have to. Driving here is a continuous battle against traffic jams, and people who are able to sneak in the smallest gaps, park in the impossible spaces, cross intersections filled with cars going at high-speeds and drive at impossible speeds in narrow roads enjoy a huge advantage over those who can't. This evolutionary pressure was so incredibly successful that the vast majority of Luanda drivers are experts: you are either an expert or you don't even dare to drive here. Which brings me back to sidewalks. You cannot imagine how difficult it is to cross the road around here. When the cars are in full motion, it roughly resembles trying to cross Silverstone during an F1 Grand Prix. Except there's a lot less F1 cars in a Grand Prix than in the average Luandan road. I almost got into an accident a few days into our stay. I checked both sides, and all cars were safely locked in a massive traffic jam. We then proceeded cautiously to navigate our way across. At the very last bit, a motorcycle just went past at a high-speed and almost knocked me out. I thanked the ancestors for that warning sign and since then have checked four times every time I cross the road.

Whilst there isn't at the moment a major push to sort out the sidewalks, the story is quite different when it comes to buildings. Luanda is a large building site, with quite a few finished products. There are many cranes filling up the skyline, and almost every new building is high-rise. Twenty stories and more are pretty common. Some of the buildings look really impressive. Also, almost all state buildings have been refurbished and they look quite impressive too. Many a time we've been past huge colonial-looking buildings, thinking they're some residence of a really wealthy person only to find out its the maternity unit, a local hospital or the head offices of some ministry. However, there are also many old, decrepit buildings - "Chechnya" is perhaps the best example of this. (Let me rant a bit here: it always struck me how people name bad places in their country after what they perceive to be bad places in distant countries. Its the ultimate insult, and, to me, its always more insulting for those doing the naming. For instance, there's a notoriously bad prison in America called Angola. Perhaps, because these places are faraway, one thinks that they are so much worse off than us. I remember that, at one point in the early eighties, my 'hood in Portugal used to be called Shanghai. How offended the wealthy Shanghaiese must feel now). So, in this long standing name-calling tradition, the Kaluandas (inhabitants of Luanda) named one of their worst construction disasters after that famously disputed Russian region. The story of the building is not entirely clear but, according popular legend, it appears the construction was done in an area where the soil is no good, and so the building is sinking. So, long ago, the government embargoed the building and construction halted. However, at the time there wasn't a push for real estate like there is now, so nothing was done and the building was left as is - very much like one we've had downtown Barreiro, Portugal, for the last twenty or so years. But, the Kaluandas, being much more resourceful folk than the Barreirenses, decided that such a lovely piece of real estate could not just be left to rot and finished the job, musseque style.

However, although one begins by having a markedly negative view of modern Luanda, on hindsight, its impossible not to have great optimism. Lets do same name-calling: Luanda is not Monrovia. (Forgive me Liberia; I've never been there, but I need something to compare against; odds are most readers never been to Monrovia either but also share think it's as close to hell on earth as you can get. I remember a quote during the eighties about the war in Liberia, when Angola was a particularly nasty place, that went along the lines of "Liberia is like Angola gone wrong". That always made an impression on me). And yet, the civil war in Angola raged for over thirty years. In Angola, things are happening. Confidence is in an all time high, inflation and the Kwanza are under control - if the prices are somewhat high, a topic we'll return to later - and there is a huge amount of development going on. The fact that there is a pretty nasty Luanda out there, and that most Angolans live in slums is not the amazing thing; that is to be expected, given the context. We all know the atrocious job the colonising nations did, at all levels. By the time the Portuguese left, less than 5% of the population had access to high schools. This disastrous management was compounded by an even more atrocious job done by the government, due to both internal and external factors. Corruption is rampant. By all accounts, Angola should be, at this juncture in time, one great, massive musseque. But its not. Its a vibrant, busy, out-and-about sort of place, with lots of foreigners here. The Portuguese youth and the Angolan diaspora are migrating in droves. I always thought of oil and diamonds as the "devil's blood" and as a curse that, by itself, generates underdevelopment. Standing in Mutamba, in the centre of town, one has to admit that, although the vast majority of the oil and diamond money is being siphoned away and most people don't get their fair share, the country as a whole is, at present, a lot better off for having it. As Miguel put it a while ago, the Angolan economic train is moving at full speed. This is only possible due to the huge wealth generated by the oil and diamonds.

One of the chaps we met here, Paulo, put it in a very descriptive way: "You think things are bad now?! Things are great! there are jobs, things are happening. You should have come here a few years ago. People used to queue for hours on end for everything. It was so bad that, at one time, when you saw a queue you went and immediately joined it. You wouldn't even think, just run and join the queue. You didn't know what people were queueing for, most people in the queue wouldn't know either. But you'd queue just the same, because there were not that many things available you could buy, and if people were queueing, there must be something being sold. Sometimes you got to the end of the queue and the item being sold wasn't something you could use, like hygienic towels or something. But it was sheer desperation, the fear of not queueing and missing out.". In fact, one of the few things I remember about Luanda when I was a kid were these long queues. I just remember sitting with my mom and queueing, for hours on end. Now the queues are over, for the most part. Ironically, you still have to queue for the fuel. But all the goods are available, supermarkets are plenty and well stocked. The new problem is cost: things are very expensive.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Nerd food: On Optimization

The Gnome Has Been Losing Weight

If you're a Linux head, in particular a Gnome one, you've bound to have noticed the huge amount of work on optimization that has been carried out of late. People such as Federico, Ben Maurer, Michael Meeks, the OLPC guys and many, many others have been tireless in their efforts of shaving memory and cycles from all sorts of libraries and applications in the Gnome stack. There is even talk of coloring functions according to their cost so that developers are more aware of the price they'll pay when they make function calls.

I believe no one, outside or inside the Gnome camp, will dispute that it has gotten a bit too fat. Even Gnome 2.16 (desktop and applications) seems to require 512 Mb of RAM to run comfortably. Yes, one can squeeze it to fit 256 Mb - or even 128 Mb - but such configurations are only usable with one or two applications running simultaneously, and certainly no more than one user on the machine. Some people may argue that this fattening is an inevitable consequence of the Free Software development methodology: since most developers are scratching their itch, and their itch is features, there is no natural evolutionary pressure towards efficiency.

There is, perhaps, some merit in this line of thinking. However, I think it takes a static view of software development, an activity which is inherently dynamic. In my view, there's nothing wrong with focusing on features. First create an app, load it with functionality and expose it to the world (as always "release early, release often"). Then, once the problem domain is understood, factor out common code into libraries that can be used by other applications requiring the same functionality. Finally, when the libraries are proved to be a bottleneck, optimise them. This generalisation models the life-cycle of many free applications. Take the GIMP, for example. First, it made sense to have GTK in the GIMP. One had to explore the problem domain and get something out there first. Then, the library became sufficiently useful that it made sense to separate the two. Now there is a large community of applications that depend on GTK, and the bottlenecks are being investigated by a rather large number of developers. Remember Hoare? "Premature optimization is the root of all evil". This is optimization done at the optimal time.

In addition, this demonstrates one of the strongest points of Free Software: its emphasis in reuse. This is such an interesting topic that deserves an entire post on its own, so we'll save that discussion proper for later. With regards to optimization, the best thing about reuse is that, when someone spots and fixes a particular memory or CPU hog, all applications that depend on the offending library will benefit from the fix. In many cases, these changes don't even require modifications at the application level - just an upgrade to the latest version of the shared library. While in theory the exact same logic applies to commercial software, the reality is that vendor lock-in and NIH stop reuse at the scale done in the Free Software community. In addition, few vendors have the incentive to continuously optimise their wares.

So, in my view, bloat in free software applications or libraries is not a bad thing per se; it just denotes that the application or library just hasn't reached maturity yet. Which brings me neatly to my next point.

Gnome, as it stands is pretty much feature complete for the vast majority of users. There are things missing, but these are mainly polish. Once the multimedia situation is comprehensively sorted out - and GStreamer seems to be on the way to achieve this objective, in particular by allowing both free and commercial codecs to coexist - we're pretty much there. Now, I know you'll disagree and tell me that feature X is stopping you from migrating to Gnome. I personally believe that Wine is the key to really unlock the Windows market; but this is not what we are talking about here. Gnome is now good enough for most normal users: people that browse the web, write documents, and need access to email; kids that want to learn to program; people that need to learn basic computer literacy skills; small businesses. As far as providing an alternative goes, well, we're there.

It will be an incredibly difficult battle to unseat Microsoft (even an impossible one), but, as any good General knows, one should fight the battles one can win - not the battles we're sure to lose. Going straight after Microsoft's 90% share of the desktop market is suicidal. One has to look for the easy pickings first. This is what Free Software has done very successfully in many segments; and it is the Right Thing for the desktop too.

The Battle at the Low End of the Market

Everyone knows that there is one important dent in Microsoft's armour: its constant upgrade cycle requires more and more hardware and more and more money for licences. The hardware costs were originally exploited by Linux in the fight for the server market but the low prices have made it less significant as a competitive advantage in that segment.

However, on the desktop front this hasn't been exploited at all. In the past, one could say that Gnome and its applications used a lot less resources than Windows. I remember Gnome pre-1.0 happily running on 64 Mb of RAM on my 486-DX. The problem then was lack of features. The features are there now but this was a bit of a phyrric victory for the low end as the footprint has increased dramatically. One can hardly say that Gnome uses significantly less resources than Windows XP. The converse may even be true, although this is disputable. No matter; the key point here is you can't run the latest version of Gnome with a web browser, an email client, a spreadsheet and a word processor open on a Pentium I with 64 megs of RAM. The thing is, you can do all of these things with Windows 95/98. Which is why, when you go to the developing world you see lots of people running these versions of Windows on the hardware they can afford.

Microsoft has no interest in this end of the market. Little money can be made by making windows lighter. Getting Vista to run on a Pentium I does not provide Microsoft with any additional revenue: if you can't afford the latest hardware, you can't afford Vista anyway. But think about it: if you could run a full blown Gnome the same way you can run Windows 95/98 on a Pentium I with 64 megs of RAM, suddenly you can get access to the latest applications and features. There is no competition between Windows 95/98 and Gnome 2.16 or later; its a battle we're sure to win. Even if Microsoft were to give away free licences of these operating systems, just on functionality alone Gnome would win. And, as we've seen, there is no incentive to get Vista or XP to run on low end.

Being in Africa made me realise just how much we take things for granted. In Europe everyone has broadband, TFT monitors and fast machines at home. When you travel around in Africa you see top end cybercafes with Pentium IIIs and connections that make Dial Up look fast. Very few people have PCs at home. The thing is, they could actually afford them. A Pentium I in England is so cheap as to be practically free. And yet, you see high-school students paying extortionate fees to use cybercafes (of course, electricity at home is also an issue but we can't do much on that front).

When I was in Namibia I spoke to a well-off high-school student who was learning Turbo Pascal at school. I also learned Turbo Pascal at school, but that was in 1992 and it was already passe in England - Portugal has always been a bit behind the times. But these guys are learning it in 2006. This makes me cringe. And all because these are the licences they can afford on the hardware they can afford. They could and should using Monodevelop to learn C#, Eclipse to lean Java or Anjuta to learn C/C++. But none of these fit the hardware they've got. Africa is performing so badly in the information age one can't even say its competing at all.

One can easily imagine that the same thing happens all over India and China, but because these countries are so big everyone focuses on the privileged 10% of the population. Although hardware is getting cheaper and cheaper, low end second-hand hardware will always be cheaper if not free; and there's always someone who can only afford the cheapest.

And before you mention LTSP, remember how hard it is get it setup. You may think its easy, and sure, its has progressed quite a lot, but it still not as easy as installing Windows 95/98. And it requires at least one decent PC as the main server, plus a network.


OLPC and associated initiatives are an eye opener for what can be done to bridge the digital divide. However, the front in the fight for the low end should be extended not just to special slimmed versions of important programs or to smaller, less featureful environments such as XFCE; there is much to be gained in having the latest and greatest versions of Gnome targeting low end hardware.

Just imagine if Ubuntu, with its easy installation and setup, was available on low end hardware. And I don't mean Xubuntu, I mean the normal, standard Ubuntu.

Whilst the Gnome hackers are doing a sterling job in general, optimising as much as they can, there is scope for more action. In my view, companies such as IBM, Novell, Redhat, Canonical and perhaps Google should get together and fund a comprehensive dieting program for Gnome and Linux in general. Whilst this is not something that can benefit any one particular actor in the Free Software community - as we've seen, there isn't much money to be made right now at the low end - it would have huge implications for the future. Linux could become the defacto operative system for the low end market, replacing Windows 95/98 and thus opening the doors for future growth.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Notebook of a Return to My Native Land - part 7

The Wind City

One thing that has to be said about the Namibians is that they are really nice and friendly as a people. We met a couple on the plane, a doctor and his wife, who, upon hearing that we were getting to Windhoek on a Sunday without a pick-up prearranged, kindly offered to take us to the town centre (they were extremely surprised that we had decided to spend seven days in Windhoek and were convinced we'd get bored after the first, as the entire city can be seen in one day).

Unlike South-Africa, the main concern in Namibia is not that you will get mugged but that you'll get stuck somewhere. At worst you'll get overcharged. As it happened, we got lucky and the forty-minute ride into town was done in luxury and comfort. This was just as well as the sun outside was baking hot. Windhoek is, at this time of the year, much warmer than Jo'burg. One of the side-effects of the heat is that landing in the capital is a troublesome affair, with the plane jittering a lot. It feels as if you are in the most turbulent spot in the sky, but with the land getting closer and closer.

After a pleasant car ride and a nice chat we got to the town proper. We then found out that the map of Windhoek in Lonely Planet is actually incorrect, and the street which shows up as Puccinni street is actually called something else. Streets in Windhoek have funny names. There is an entire block with streets named after classic music composers such as Beethoven and Mozart. A lot of names are in German, such as Beethovenstrasse. Namibia was a German colony a long time ago but still maintains strong links with Germany. There are around 30,000 white Namibians of German descent and around 100,000 white Namibians altogether; there are around 2 million people in total in the country. Namibia is mostly desert and you really get that feeling as you drive around. On a Sunday you scarcely see people.

Eventually we found Puccini street, which is about 15 minutes walk from the centre of town. Puccini lodge is a nice place, but its a lot more expensive than what we were paying in Jo'burg. In fact, that is another trait of African backpacking: its a lot dearer than Asia/Australia. In Jo'burg we were paying 200 rand for a double room, which was already quite expensive; in Windhoek, Puccini charged 320 Namibian dollars. Namibian dollars are pegged to the rand, and South-African rand is also legal tender in the country. This made our life easier. Note though that Namibian dollars are not legal tender in South-Africa, so one has to change all the money back to rands before going back.

The staff at Puccini's is extremely friendly and the facilities are, much like Gemini's, very tidy. It is slightly more upper market than Gemini's and breakfast is included, but these features are not enough to justify the additional 120 dollars charged. Most of the backpackers at Puccini's were over forty and appeared to be German.

After a good sleep we ventured out in town. This was on the Monday. Windhoek is an extremely quiet place. It is very hard to describe how quiet this capital is. The main road is Independence Avenue, and it runs for miles and miles on end. The part of it that crosses the town centre has quite a few banks, offices and a few flats. It also has quite a few shops of different kinds such as you'd expect to find in any city centre. The surprising thing is their number. I'd say Windhoek's centre is smaller than the Southampton's, and Southampton is pretty small.

It doesn't take more than a few hours in the country to figure out that Namibia is still very much divided along ethnic lines. We did get this impression in South-Africa too (we didn't see any mixed couples in Jo'burg although there were plenty of white and black people out and about), but not to the extent you see in Namibia. Here, almost without exception, all the businesses are owned by white Namibians and almost without exception all employees are black. Almost all the nice big SUVs and jeeps are owned by white Namibians and all the old bangers are owned by black Namibians. In Windhoek you do see some black people shopping in malls, but not to the extent you see in South-Africa. So it seems that, for all of its faults, the Black Empowerment and other programmes by the South-African government are actually having some positive effects.

One peculiarity of shopping in Namibia is searching. Every time you leave a shop, a security guard checks the contents of your bags against your receipt. This is done to every single customer, black, colored, white or asian, without fail, in any shop, so don't go losing your receipt before you exit the store. And what's more, if you enter the same shop twice, they'll re-check the bags. Best to be careful and keep all receipts.

On the whole, just like with Jo'burg, Windhoek is an expensive place. One can easily spend 140 to 160 dollars on a meal for two, and most dishes cost around 40-60 dollars.

The other interesting thing, which also applies to South-Africa, is the lack of African culture. You don't hear really loud African music coming out of the cars of _either_ white or black Namibians. Everyone seems to listen to either Hip-Hop or Pop/Rock music. Its really strange. The music tastes are pretty much like Britain or Australia and nothing at all like Gambia or the Portuguese speaking African countries, where African music is everywhere and everyone, white or black, listens to it. The only time when we heard a bit of Kizomba (African music) was on the way to the airport when we were off to Angola (and then, the driver was of Angolan descent).


One of our objectives was to see how black people live. You can easily do that these days, since there are township excursions. This is also one of the very few opportunities you get to be a patron of a black business in Namibia. We took a two-hour trip into Katatura, known as the Namibian Soweto. On the minibus with us was a German tourist, who works as a journalist back home. The trip illustrated how deep and recent the wounds are in Namibia. Katatura was a black-only township; the colored township is up the road. Many houses in the townships still have the original ethnic grouping, with the letters denoting the origin: D for Damara, H for Herero, and so on. Not only there was a clear division between whites, coloreds and blacks but there was a fairly large rift between the different black ethnic groups.

We went to a market in Katatura, where anything and everything gets sold. It is actually very organised, and one gets the feeling that perhaps more informal (read chaotic) markets do exist. There were many Angolans selling their wares at the market as well as buying things. They were easy to spot as they were all wearing all manner of items with an Angolan flag, such as caps, shirts, bandanas.

Later on, it was amazing to sit down in a shebeen and have a drink, overlooking the sea of zinc and corrugated iron expanding as far as the eye could see. However, it must be said that the Namibian government is doing somethings to alleviate the poverty in Katatura. For instance, they have "street lighting", which is pretty much like the lights of a football stadium. They also have many public toilets and quite a few water taps available to the public. Some of these have to be paid for but its infinitely better than say the average favela in Rio or the musseques in Luanda.

The trip ended with a visit to a women's project, which focuses in particular on disabled women. It was very nice to see "designer" items being produced using very simple techniques, such as transforming used glass bottles into beads.

Swakopmund, or Little Germany

After a few days of relaxing in Windhoek we started to get restless and it was time to do something different. So we decided to get a minibus and travel to the coastal town of Swakopmound (called just Swakop by the locals). For those not in the know, these "minibuses" are pretty much souped up Toyota Hiace vans, with the cargo compartment full of seats. Because in Namibia regulations are quite strict and there are a lot of police check-points, the minibuses don't get filled up as much as they do in other African countries such as Gambia or Angola (the quiet American had told us though that the story is somewhat different up north, but as far as Windhoek and Swakop go, we could not complain too much of overcrowding).

We paid 80 bucks per person for the four-hour journey, which is a bit of a bargain, considering the 40 minute ride to the airport costs 100 dollars per person in regular cabs. But even on the minibuses there are traits of separation. There is a more organized minibus that departs at set times (14:00 and 14:30 every day) and costs 120 dollars for the trip. This bus is almost exclusively used by tourists and white Namibians. The van is very nice looking, and it is much newer than its black counterpart, with proper seats and everything. We were happy to take the 80 dollar bus, not just because it is one of the few chances you have to help the black economy but you also get there faster as they constantly speed over 140 km/ph. Of course, you may not get there at all, as the Namibian roads are known for their car crashes.

We finally got to Swakop, and, for an extra fee, got taken straight to our doorstep. We stayed at Desert Sky Backpackers lodge, for a modest fee of 200 dollars a day. Its hard to describe this, but if we thought Windhoek was quiet, nothing had prepared us for Swakop. After all, everyone we spoke to said that Swakop is the tourist destination, all Namibians go there for the summer. We were expecting some kind of Benidorm sort of place. Instead, all we got were a few fishermen. Literally. We walked the streets, up and down, and apart form the local gardener here and there and a few tourists (and few is the operative word here), there was no one at all in the streets. We even bumped into our old acquaintance from the Katatura trip, the German reporter. Imagine the odds, finding someone you know in Namibia.

But it wasn't just in the quietness that Swakop resembles Windhoek, its also a very divided place. In fact, more so than Windhoek, even. We did not see a single person in the restaurants we went to that was not white and the vast majority of the waiters were black (I recall one white waiter, a teenager). It is actually a bit uncomfortable to be the only non-white customers in a packed place in Africa.

The other thing about Swakop is it is really cold place. I mean, really. The funny thing is its around the corner from the desert (you can walk there!) and five minutes from the beach, but man, that cold wind chills your soul. It didn't help that we'd left all of our luggage in Windhoek at Puccini's, including the fleeces, and we only had t-shirts and shorts with us. The weather was good when the sun came out, but very cold and windy otherwise. And the sea is extremely cold. Its a bit like the sea in Porto, northern Portugal. Very, very cold.

In Swakop we decided to start going on tours. We first did the desert. This was a great experience. We had a couple of teenagers doing the trip with us, on quad bikes. Shahin procrastinated as much as possible, and was determined not to have to drive a quad bike by herself, but she wanted to see the desert more than she feared driving! Although I was not afraid of driving a quad bike, I got to say I did feel the fear of god when we had to go down 45-degree dunes, more than 50 meters high. Actually, even going up them was a challenge. But it was great fun. And it was blistering cold. Luckily, the guy from the tour lent me his fleece, or I would have frozen.

We also went on a dolphin and seal trip. This was also great fun. As we got to the docks, there were three large dolphins swimming just by the boat. Amazing. It was a good omen for the day, methinks, as we got to see both big and small dolphins, and got into very close contact with the seals. Its awfully hard to take pictures of dolphins, and I think Shahin is very happy with her digital camera and the ability to take many, many shots of empty sea without having to develop them.

After a couple of days in Swakop, people started arriving. It was indeed as most people said, a rather popular place (at least in Namibian terms), its just that we got there before everybody else did. People started trickling in, and a few days later you could see a lot of new faces walking about town. The beginning of the festive season is marked with the Swakopmund Christmas Fair. This is a very nice little market, with all sorts of stuff and more importantly, lots of barbecued food, including boerwors. However, although this market is extremely nice, there is something really eerie about being in the middle of Africa surrounded by a traditionally German Christmas market, listening to German or English Christmas carols and with most people running the stalls being white Namibians and most visitors being either white Namibians or white tourists. All the stalls ran by black people were selling African art, and they were mostly stashed away near the parking lot. There were a few food stalls run by coloreds.

On our last day in Swakop we were lucky enough to meet Ewald and Heicke. Ewald is Namibian of German (Austrian) descent and Heicke is German, both teenagers. They were planning to drive down to Windhoek the next day and offered to take us, sharing petrol costs. In addition, they were also going to Walvis Bay. We joined them and departed early in the morning. There's not much to be said about Walvis Bay, other than "the flamingos outnumbered the people by 100 to 1" and the wind was even more constant than in Swakop. It is such a desert place its unimaginable: the streets are empty on a Saturday afternoon.

We then made our way back to Windhoek, spotting various different animals such as the eland and a giraffe in a game park. Other than that, the drive was quite uneventful.

Notebook of a Return to My Native Land - part 6

Pinned to the Wall

Shahin wouldn't let me forget the PIN incident (or should I say incidents...), which occurred just before we left. The words piss-up and brewery come to mind. If you recall, we had struggled with our friends at Abbey to get our beloved VISA card and its PIN and, as if by magic, they managed to send everything through just as we were leaving. What I conveniently forgot to tell you was that, when I went to the ATM, I couldn't get the PIN to work. Tried it a couple of times but no luck. So we went into the branch and complained. The woman replied that quite a few customers had reported similar problems. We cursed and abused Abbey for their inability to do the most trivial tasks, requested a new PIN and thought nothing more about it.

A few days later, Shahin was desperately hunting for the new PIN she had requested for her credit card. It was missing and we just could not find it. She did find the letter where the PIN should have been, but "somebody" had removed it. And the Abbey National PIN was still in its pristine condition in the folder.

Yes, you guessed it right, I somehow confused the two PINs, used the wrong one on the Abbey card, and figured it out after requesting a new PIN. The pain, the pain. And, just to put the cherry on top, I lost my credit card's PIN too.

In my defense, I stoically state that I never claimed any organizational ability - other than perhaps with regards to source code...

But, fear not, the desenrascanco Gods were still looking over their favourite son: Maestro debit cards work fine in South-Africa and Namibia. Just look for an ABSA (in South-Africa) and a Standard Bank (in Namibia).

We'll worry about the rest later.


After a rather uneventful ten-hour flight, we finally landed on African soil on Thursday the 30th of December. We landed in Johannesburg - Jo'burg or Jozzie, as the locals call it - in the OR Tambo airport. The airport is on par to most European airports, if perhaps somewhat smaller than the larger ones. As with a lot of south-African infrastructure, the airport and its accesses are currently being extended in preparation for the 2010 football (soccer) World Cup. One thing we found pretty amazing about OR Tambo is that there is a Muslim prayer area, clearly indicated by the information signs.

Official entry into South-Africa is handled in an extremely efficient fashion. The visa is stamped in the passport upon entry. This is a single-entry visa, valid for 90 days. One thing to remember is to fill in the entry form on the plane, declaring all the cash being brought into the country. Note also that the form seems to imply you need to declare any goods worth more than 3000 rand. This is not the case: you should only declare items that you brought with the intention of selling. And remember, any item you declare above this limit will be subjected to a 20% VAT charge.

We were staying in Gemini Backpackers, in Crystal Gardens. They organized the airport pickup. Apparently this is a must in Jo'burg and it is not at all advised to just walk out of the airport and grab a taxi. The ride took around thirty minutes in the hot, humid, thundery weather. Unexpectedly, Jozzie is a very green city and its full of big walled houses; it is one massive low-rise sprawl, with trees and greenery everywhere. There are also lots of electric fences and barbed wired, which at first look a bit menacing until one gets used to it. On the whole, it is very pleasant to drive around: the traffic is not bad for a big city, the roads are in very good condition and the scenery is beautiful. There are quite a lot of people out and about - but not huge amounts like one sees in poorer countries (Gambia springs to mind). On the whole, the areas of Jozzie we drove through look like a fairly posh London suburb, but with the white and Asian people replaced by black people.

Interestingly enough Gemini is around the corner from the Alexandra township, which is famous for all the wrong reasons. There were enough ghetto-birds (police helicopters) flying around, at all hours of the day. The sirens of the police cars and ambulances were also constant company. However, I must say that, for us two Bethnal-Green-Massif-Innit inhabitants, this soundtrack made us feel right at home.

Gemini lodge is pleasant enough, very tidy and extremely green. There is a nice but fading snooker table, at which I spent almost all my waking hours, and a swimming pool, but the water of the pool is not clean enough to swim (or maybe it has too much chlorine). This is a common theme in most backpacker's lodges we've been to. They all have swimming pools (with filters running and everything) but the water never seems clean enough for swimming. I don't quite understand why they bother to have the pool at all.

There are some significant differences between the African backpacker and its Asian/Australian counterpart. First, there are lots of older people, some in their fifties, some older. Sleeping in dorms and all. Second, the younger crowd is not quite your lets-get-drunk-on-the-plane, fiesta-all-night-long sort of people. They are very quiet and often reserved, go to bed at ten'ish, wake up early and spend days in silence reading books. Our living room reminded me of a library. Incredibly enough, this holds true even for the English we met.

Deep Sleep in the Burg

But lets not get ahead of ourselves. Not to let our fans down, the sleeping-monsters-couple did just that: we slept. We got to the lodge at midday and we slept all day, and then all night, and then most of the morning of the next day. We were exhausted.

We decided to use the four days in Jozzie to recover from the onslaught of the previous days. Besides, not much can be done other than going on organized trips (such as the Soweto tour). Everyone keeps on telling you not to go out walking but to take the "shuttle" instead. The "shuttle" is actually just a normal car driven on demand by one of the guys from the lodge, so it would be better named "the taxi", but there you go.

So, in four days, all we did was chat to people, go to the local supermarket and mall and read books. On the subject of malls and shops, I advise the men out there not to allow their women into Mr. Price as it is an evil shop - days can be spent waiting for them to come out... Mind you, Shahin was really good, didn't buy anything and didn't take too long (and this was not written under duress! ouch!).

We also watched the movie Beat the Drum, which is good but not brilliant. In parts it is a bit like government propaganda against the AIDS epidemic. On the whole its worth watching, in particular for those less familiar with the African way of life such as ourselves. There are many scenes from rural life which are quite candid and the photography is great. The storyline is just a tad too optimistic, everything turns out too all right for our liking - certainly not at the same level of Tsotsi. But actually, surrounded by so much talk of danger and violence, it was good to watch a feel-good movie about the townships.

One thing we liked about hour five-hour stretch on the mall (half-a-day outing...) was how normal and integrated it seemed. There were lots of black people shopping, quite a few Asians, a few white people too. It seemed as if the ever illusive black middle-class is indeed forming in South-Africa.

The Quiet American

One of the lads in Gemini was American. A good American (democrat), quiet and not overly patriotic. He had just finished a teaching stretch in Namibia, and was on his way to India. We had some great chats about development but the one thing I remember best was his joke:

Two UN members, an African and a Chinese meet at a conference. After merrily chatting, the Chinese invites the African back to his country. When the African visits, he's shown to an incredible mansion. The African asks: "How do you manage to afford this on our pauper UN wages?" to which the Chinese replies: "I'll let you in on a secret. See that new bridge there? Ten percent of that went straight into my pocket!". The African nods, amazed. Later on it is the Chinese's turn to visit the African. When they get there, the Chinese is even more surprised with the African's house! Its much bigger and much posher! He asks, "how do you manage to have such a house?!". The African takes him to the window and points "Do you see that massive bridge over there?". The Chinese replies: "What bridge?". "Exactly", replies the African. "100% of the money went straight into my pocket!"

This was funny. I pointed out that the same exact joke could be made by replacing "African" with "American in Iraq" and "Chinese" with "Indian". I liked the quiet American.

The Spider Incident

One of the downsides of being surrounded by greenery is the amount of African wild-life you're exposed to. For some reason, normal insects just seem a lot more menacing in Africa. They're just bigger and meaner. One day we got back to our room and I noticed a spider. It was big, perhaps about twice the size of an English house spider, but, much like it, it seemed pretty harmless and was quietly relaxing on the wall. I dutyfuly pointed it out to Shahin.

Its pretty difficult to describe her reaction in words - I just wish I had a camera. She reacted as if a hungry pack of lions was in our room. First she was petrified, babbling something which I could not quite understand; then she started shouting at me. Then I had to open the door for her to run (and I mean RUN) outside. The funny thing was, by the time I came back to the room to catch the spider it was gone! I double-checked with the owner, who said the "big ones" are actually harmless. However, he didn't fill me with confidence by talking about the "little ones". These, apparently, are deadly. "But don't worry, if you get bitten by those ones you'll die pretty quickly".

Eventually I got back to the room, found the spider and removed it. We didn't sleep very comfortably though, thinking about the "little ones".

Bafana Bafana

A quick word on football. South-Africans are actually less enthusiastic about the World Cup than I thought they would be. I asked a couple of locals, and they seemed a bit worried about it. First, they think their national side, the Bafana Bafana, are not in their best form. Some players such as Benny Mcarthy are seen as spoiled brats that can't work hard for the team. Its amazing to think that Angola has a small budget, very few players in European leagues (and of those, most play in lower Portuguese divisions), almost no sporting facilities and still manages to qualify to the World Cup and had almost all of the supporters behind the team; whereas South-Africa has got the best facilities, massive budget, most players play in Europe and they still can't get their act together.

The second thing people seem really concerned about is security. They think the government will have to do a huge effort to step up security in order to host the event. Some people doubt the government is up to the task.

Finally, there is the huge expenditure associated with it, which some think would be better used elsewhere.

On the whole, the reactions where quite surprising. I was expecting everyone to be really positive about the first ever World Cup on African soil.


After a few days of peace and quiet, it was time to make a move. We ended up not doing the Soweto trip this time round - it will have to be done later on. One thing that is very annoying about Jo'burg, and in fact spoils the town, is the constant need for supervision. You just can't do anything that isn't organized, with a drop-off and pick-up by a known good taxi driver. After a while you get this feeling of being fenced in, and it is quite oppressive. On hindsight, we could have probably ventured out during the day without too much trouble - one of the guys, a Venezuelan backpacker, did go to New Town and said he thoroughly enjoyed it. But these were our first few days in Southern Africa; and since we were surrounded mainly by foreigners and cautious lodge staff, we just didn't know where the limits were. It seemed safer to err in the side of caution.

Organizing the departure was interesting in itself. Gemini has this one-man-band approach and all administrative tasks are done by one chap, Aaron, who is a bit like a general manager of the place. Aaron literally deals with pretty much everything, from booking people, to collecting payments, to sorting out spiders in your room. We've seen him at his desk from the first light of day till late at night. And doing a bit of cleaning on the side too, on his spare moments. In fact, as far as we could ascertain the only thing he doesn't do is driving the shuttles, for which there are two or three drivers - who seem to sit outside all day waiting for passengers. The actual owners of the lodge, a nice white family, also seem to sit around relaxing pretty much all the time. Unfortunately, because there are quite a few people coming in and out, Aaron is always running from one place to the next and its almost impossible to get his undivided attention. And since we can't actually go anywhere without a car (which has to be organized by Aaron for you), we couldn't do much without him either. To get an idea, it could take an hour or two to get a Fanta and it took us more than a day to buy a phonecard. While we were waiting for the card, we got Aaron to ring the bus people for us. They told us that it would be pretty difficult to get to Cape Town by bus at that time. The holidays were just beginning and everyone was heading down that way. Unfortunately this meant it would also be pretty difficult to get to Windhoek by bus too as the buses have part of the route in common, up til Uppington. In the end we got Aaron to ring ComAir, and they got us a flight to Windhoek pretty much straight away. This was a win as the flight is only a couple of hours instead of the 26 hour bus journey. Although the buses are slightly less expensive, once you factor in the extra days we would have to wait round plus the time, flying is a much better deal.

So we got the plane and went off to Windhoek.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Notebook of a Return to My Native Land - part 5

Angolan Red Tape

While I was moaning about our lovely Angola, my cousin Elsa sent me the following reply, which I found so enlightening I just had to share with everyone. My translation does not do justice to the original, so I've attached her email below. For the non-portuguese, a "bridge" happens when a national holiday falls on a Tuesday or a Thursday, and basically means that people don't turn up to work on the Monday or Friday. A holiday on a Wednesday may also result in a two day bridge...

I would like to placate your despair somewhat as I will be joining you soon on the battle against Angolan red tape. On top of my to-do list, as soon as I reach our beloved motherland, is to renew my ID card and passport! I started doing the usual prayers, since one has to exclude Fridays (which, of course are reserved as weekend preparation), the Mondays that follow Friday holidays, the bridges that follow the previous' week's mid-week holidays, the preparation for Christmas and New Year, etc... And we still have to pray that there are no rainy days, days in which it is impossible to have any functioning public services (the imaginary quote "Rain is the number one enemy of public work" will one day be said by an eminent Angolan authority, who has to sort out her paperwork); Mental note for any wannabe-users of the Angolan public services: Angola is the number one country in the WORLD when it comes to the sheer number of national holidays! And rain is the number two national catastrophe – number one is of course lack of that item essential for the survival of any Angolan, "birra", also known as beer... True, we are not quite yet in the rainy season but we all know that the most unexpected events always happen when you need to sort things out... That's how it goes... Contingency plan? We haven't got one yet but probably - as a person who can choose between the best of both worlds - I'll get an Angolan visa on my Portuguese passport, just so that, god forbid, if I can't get my Angolan documents sorted out in time, I'll at least get out of the country in time to celebrate Easter with the family... Well... If it does rain I might as well forget about sorting out the passport and the ID card; at least, as a consolation, there's nothing in the world that quite compares to the smell of red earth wet with the worm rain...

Só queria minorar o vosso desespero juntando-me à vossa batalha pelo ultrapassar das angustias de combater a burocracia angolana partilhando com vocês a noticia de que no topo da minha lista dos afazeres assim que pisar o solo da pátria é renovar o BI e o passaporte! já comecei as minhas rezas uma vez que tirando as sextas feiras que são, claro, de preparação para o fds, as segundas seguidas de fds em que a sexta
foi feriado, as pontes a seguir aos feriados a meio da semana, preparação para as festas do natal e ano novo, etc... ainda temos de rezar para que não haja dias de chuva, dias em que se torna impossível ter algum serviço público funcional ( "a chuva é o inimigo nº1 do funcionalismo publico" , não disse, mas diria qualquer erudito angolano que tivesse duas semanas para tratar da sua identidade caducada algures em meados de 2001); Nota para futuros utilizadores do aparelho estatal angolano: Angola é o país com mais feriados nacionais do MUNDO!!!! A chuva é a 1ª catástrofe nacional a seguir à falta do bem essencial para a sobrevivência de qualquer angolano que se preze, a "birra", vulga cerveja... é claro que não estamos propriamente na altura das chuvas, mas por experiência própria há alguma coisa que não aconteça quando realmente precisamos de alguma coisa? Pois é... O plano de contingência? Ainda não há, mas provavelmente como detentora do melhor de dois mundos terei de apor um visto angolano no meu passaporte português, para que, caso não consiga documentos angolanos em tempo útil, possa pelo menos sair do país a tempo de festejar a Páscoa com a família... Bem... resta o consolo de que se realmente chover posso não ter nem BI nem passaporte, mas não existe nada que se compare ao cheiro da terra vermelha molhada pela chuva quente...

The Eye of the Storm

The last few days in London were rather convoluted. Many, many things happened in those ten or so days. It felt pretty much as if we were riding a high-speed roller-coaster, and the only way to stay on was to work till exhaustion. The daily routine involved waking up around eight in the morning, doing endless chores and going to sleep around one or so in the morning. Of course, this being us - renowned for our sleeping ability - occasionally we had to take some time for a siesta in the afternoon. But mostly we worked.

I just recall these days as one big blur.

On hindsight, my decision of leaving work so late was not a win. At the time, things looked pretty much under control at home so when the guys asked me to stay for a bit longer I didn't think twice. Work was in a bit of a state and I wanted to leave things in order. However, Shahin and I underestimated the amount of things that needed to be done at the end. This was to some extent because we were basing ourselves on Shahin's travelling experiences with Chris and Sham, which gave us a great baseline for organisation. After all, they are the most organised people we know. What we didn't realise at the time was that we had four additional things that made matters more complicated by several orders of magnitude: a) our visas were difficult to obtain b) I was working all hours of the day c) we had a company to sort out; and d) we were moving out of our flat.

I've already explained some of the fun we had getting the Angolan visas. I must say all other visas were trivial to obtain; but we still had to take two half-days to go to the Mozambique embassy, and this was at a point where time was at a premium.

With regards to work, I was rather busy just before leaving. I was chasing an annoying bug deep in the guts of the glue layer between the analytics (quants) engine and the user interface. This bug proved to be rather elusive, and it took all of my might plus some of Sushila's to be able to track it down. We had to work some very long hours but we did it in the end.

Sorting the company things also took its time. In particular going through year end accounts at midnight after a very, very long day in a very, very long week was not nice.

And we also had to buy the remaining items. These were not many, since Shahin had been at it for three months, but there were still a few scattered ones and they required trekking around London.

All these things pale in comparison to moving.


The logistics of moving were daunting. Its hard to believe we actually made it. We had to pack everything up we wanted to keep, bin everything else or give it away, ship all the items to the four "storage" locations provided by family (none within walking distance of another or of our flat), clean the flat, sort out the closure of all the utility bills, sort out the change of address, say goodbye to as many friends and family as possible and many, many other things that I have by now managed to erase from my brain. This was exhausting.

We ended up doing several trips on public transport taking bits and pieces because the cars we were going to use to move were not big enough (conversely, one could say we had far too much stuff, but we'll leave that to the discretion of the reader...). When things got desperate, we used cabs as well. One of the highlights was the day when took a load to my sister's house in North London early in the morning (a fairly large load, it must be said), rested for half-an-hour, went to the Mozambican embassy, got back to our flat and left almost immediately to take a massive load (and I mean massive) to Shahin's mom. On the train. We got back to the flat late, only to find that there was still lots of stuff left to ship. The house just did not want to empty itself. It was a Sisyphean task.

You have to understand, we didn't expect the move to be an issue. We planned it well in advance. When we moved from Southampton we left huge amounts of boxes at my sister's house and we gave away everything we did not need. So it was a great surprise to find that we still had so many things. "The more things you own, the more things own you.". At this point, I was ready to take my vows and join a Buddhist monastery. Getting rid of all the material things seemed like the only thing to do. I suppose I had a bit of an epiphany: I suddenly realised how hard it is to own absolutely nothing.

In the midst of this delirious state, someway, somehow we managed to get to a point were things could mostly fit in the two small cars. This was just in the nick of time, as we had organised with Sham and Mina to come and pick up the stuff on the Sunday. After some of the usual heated discussions common to the Begum women - on which we almost lost one of the cars - things got underway.

A special mention must be made to the efficiency of the inhabitants of Bethnal Green, fondly known as the "Bethnal Green massive innit" crew. We had a set of shelves, a desk and a chair, all in pretty good condition. We were worried these items were going to end up in a council dumpster somewhere, with so many people in need of good furniture. None of our friends and family needed these items. We tried to sell them or even give them away to local second hand shops, to no avail. We even mentioned it to local shop owners, which were by now our good friends, but nobody needed them. Just as we were contemplating calling the council and organising a pick-up, Shahin convinced us (us being me and Afaj) to leave it under the bridge and see if anyone from the local council estate would want it. For those who have seen Lord of War, the events that followed were almost identical to the fast disassembling of an entire plane in the middle of the African savanna. We had people around the goods in no time. In fact, people were already there collecting things whilst we were dropping off the rest. Some of the characters looked a little bit shady and my ghetto-sense started tingling; we wouldn't want people collecting things other than the ones we were giving away - in particular the items which we were loading in the cars. But the "massive" crew was law-abiding and all was well in the end.

Thanks to the help of Afaj, Chris, Sham and Mina we managed to get all the goods to the Herts "storage" locations.

Hello and Goodbye

Unfortunately, we didn't manage to say goodbye to most people. There just wasn't enough hours in the day. I remember looking at my Google calendar and seeing a sea of red and blue, appointments of all shapes and sizes.

The only exceptions where those who invited themselves and came up to our flat: Natalie, Stacey and Jay, JC, Nantha, Sam, Chris and Sham, Afaj, Mina. Of course, we made sure they all packed and cleaned while chatting; and they all left with as many things as they could possibly take.

Everyone else will have to wait until summertime, unless we bump into you on our travels.


On Wednesday, the day of our departure, we still had to take stuff to my sister's house and clean the flat. We were thoroughly exhausted and we had no thoughts in mind other than to rest. Somehow we managed to sort out the flat and get the stuff to my sister's. But then, both the buses and trains from North London to Heathrow were not working. Incredible. We ended up taking a cab, which was just as well with the amount of stuff we had on us.

We met up with Chris and Sham at the airport, sorted out last minute details, including getting Sham and Chris to buy us an extra bag for our tent and sleeping bags; we then had some food and were on our way.

On our way to deep sleep, that is.