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.


Sardaukar Siet said...

And I thought all the vaccination and long flight hours were the worse... Bruno

rp said...

This weekend I was reading the weekly chronicle of Gonçalo Cadilhe in Expresso. This time the guy was travelling from Gabon to Cameroon. He was travelling by bus and by train and everytime he asked the driver "What time do we arrive?" the answer was "Only mighty Alah knows!!" or" "Depends on the hour of departure and we only start when all time seats are sold out" or "not before sunset". So after you get to Africa get yourself ready for plenty of fun in the local transportations. Rui

paula said...

Next chapter soon please... :) Did I told you I'll be flying to NY in December? oh yeahh running away for 2 weeks... Bjs xxx

Marco Craveiro said...

guys, i still havent quite learned how to reply to threads in this blogger malarky :-D

bruno, yeah, vaccinations where pretty damn hard but nothing compared to *anything* involving Angolan red-tape :-)

rui, you made us laugh :-) from now on we use "Only mighty Alah knows!!" for every question :-D

paula, enjoy NY and make sure you take lots of pictures for us! :-)

um abraco


Shamim said...

Marco, you are so pants're supposed to be Angolan (so we are led to believe) wot hope has scat bag Shahin have...."Only mighty Allah knows or can help you now"!! good luck you eternal optimist....inshallah you will both get there and back again....
love sis Sham & Afa

UsingTangent said...

Dudes, LOL at Angolan dictionary - so "how are you"? Scotty ;)