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.


rp said...

Man, your descriptions are getting better and better. I almost get the feeling of beeing there with you. Its great fun to read your notebook.

paula said...

Happy New Year!!! Espero que a entrada no novo ano tenha sido em grande. Albufeira esteve on fire :) Aproveitando o comment: ParabĂ©ns a vocĂȘ, nesta data querida, muitas felicidades, muitos anos de vida... (adia por mais algumas horas) Beijinhos e fica bem velhote xxx

Marco Craveiro said...

thanks rui, good to know people are reading! :-) happy new year for you too paula, and for everybody else too! birthday was cool, check the next entry! :-) good to hear you guys enjoyed the algarve, we have to come down at some point next year!