Benguela is one of the oldest Portuguese settlements, a small coastal town of great strategic importance in days gone by. Nowadays it has only four or five paved roads, but the many other non-paved ones serve as a testament to its past grandeur. The city is the capital of the province with the same name, a position that has forever been disputed by Lobito, its upstart rival. The province's total population is around 1.4 million souls, more or less evenly split between these two cities, with the important caveat that census haven't been conducted for the best part of fifteen years. Much like the remainder of Angola outside of Luanda, the province is very sparsely populated.
Benguela was designed in the South African or American style, with great many parallel roads and avenues, one big square of a place. The two or three avenues are large, very wide. Due to this design, it is really easy to learn your way around town. In less than a couple of days we were fairly proficient, and moved confidently when out and about. You can move with total freedom at all hours, even at night, and carry valuables with you without having to worry about it. We didn't experience a single problem during our stay, even though we walked the town extensively at all times of the day, and we frequently carried our camera. This was a greatly appreciated freedom, the ability to leave the house and roam, not depending on anyone other than ourselves - something we dearly missed in Luanda. There are a few places to eat, but not many. Although the prices are still a bit high, they are much more reasonable than in the capital. Most of our meals ended up costing between 2000 to 2500 kwanzas for the both of us (25 to 30 USD). A place we recommend is Tan-Tan, a Brazilian restaurant that specialises in buffet food by the kilo (a popular concept in Brazil).
The architecture of Benguela is almost exclusively colonial. Government buildings are solid, large, grand old things, built in that ostentatious style of one or two hundred years ago. A large number of these buildings have been well preserved, and a few key ones were completely renovated. There are important exceptions such as the immense Post Office building, a majestic structure that has been robbed by time of a lot of its splendour. The old anthropology museum, just around the corner from the beach, is an even worse example of conservation, a skeleton of its old self, only ruins really. Overall, though, there seems to be a concerted effort from government to keep their property more or less in order, so one hopes that the much that remains to be done will one day have its turn. The biggest problem in Benguela, and I suspect in most of Angola outside Luanda, are private homes. The vast majority of houses and flats were erected in colonial times, up till independence in 1974. Whilst Luanda has seen a massive construction boom in recent years, little has been built since the seventies outside the capital. In Benguela's case, almost all properties we've seen date back to the seventies and less than half of those were in good condition. There are some new houses being built in the city, but we didn't get a chance to see them since they're slightly out of town. We did see many refurbished houses, all quite impressive indeed, with lush greenery popping out behind high fences, but the worry is that many properties will never get the attention they deserve. Flats in particular have suffered the most neglect, but, fortunately for Benguela, there aren't that many large towers like there are in Luanda and Lobito - the fourteen, twenty stories high giants. Most of them are less than five stories.
Still on the subject of architecture, A place one must visit in Benguela is the open air cinema Kalunga. It was recently refurbished, and sports a lovely esplanada (or beer garden) at the top. Its worth going there almost at all times, during the day for the shade and nice cool beer, at night for either the beer or the cinema. You can also eat some snacks and fast food meals such as fried octopus with chips, which we highly rate. Unfortunately, the cinema is not making that much money at the moment, and capacity is far above demand for such a little town, so its economic viability is in doubt. One hopes dearly that they manage to make it work. The bar, however, is doing fairly well, and we got to chat to the manager a few times, Cid, a most likable character.
Funnily enough, the biggest annoyance we found with Benguela is the rain, but for very different reasons than the ones we complain about in England. The rainy season is extremely hot, but it rains almost every other day at dusk or at night - just when you want to watch a movie at Kalunga. The rains can go on for a bit, torrential downpours that leave everything flooded in their wake. The paved roads are not greatly affected, they dry out as soon as the sun shines and you can hardly tell it rained. The sandy roads, however, somehow manage to convert themselves into thick mud, alternating with huge, swimming pool sized-puddles, and remain in this state for days on end. These can be extremely difficult to negotiate by foot or even by car. We were housed in one such road, which made getting in and out of the house somewhat challenging after the rains. To make matters worse, these roads aren't pleasant even in the best of times - when rain isn't around for a few days - since the fine sand they're made of produces vast amounts of dust when bikes and cars travel across them.
But the negative side of Benguela was more than compensated by its many positive aspects, including its delicious ice creams and fresh bread, the niceness of the people, the many means of transportation available and the beauty of the nearby beaches. Overall, we thoroughly enjoyed our two-week stay.
Praia Morena is the city's beach, nowadays no longer an "in" beach for the well-off people. Instead, its mainly used by the less wealthy, who congregate there in large numbers, seven days of the week. For us, the best thing about it was the short distance from our house: less than half-an-hour walk. Its not a great beach, but, for a city beach, its also not that bad, all things considered. The water, whilst clean, is fuzzy-sandy, making it impossible to see the many fish that swim around you. The sand has some rubbish lying around here and there, but perhaps not as much as Ilha, especially if you bear in mind that there are no concessioned areas with expensive bars in Praia Morena. In fact, in the vicinity of the beach there are only two bars, probably more accurately described as cafes, and these only busy themselves a bit at midday, when a few office workers stroll in for their two-hour lunch breaks. A fino (draught beer) costs between 50 to 100 kwanzas, a far cry from the 400 or so kwanzas one would pay in Ilha.
A large road follows the beach for part of its length, but the partnership soon ends and the road shoots inwards, towards town. The dividing line between road and beach is a decaying sidewalk shaded by tall green trees, underneath which lie benches and a long, knee-high bench-like wall. These are perfect for kipping when the afternoon sun proves to be too hot, the shade being really cool and breezy, and many a time we felt obliged to accompany the locals in their afternoon siestas. On the benches, and on the wall, kitandeiras sit to rest awhile from their never ending journey, always taking the opportunity to promote their wares to passers by. They sell all sorts of things, from exercise books to mangoes, to doughnut-like fried delicacies stored in great big plastic boxes. Ten kwanzas will buy you a doughnut. Below, in the parking lot by the sidewalk, large numbers of kupapatas - the bike taxis - await their clients in convivial conversation, a typically animated affair. Eventually, slowly, one drags himself from the group to do an errand, sometimes involving carrying a passenger with a bag or two, or a large load, or a kid, or all of these at the same time, all in one small 50 cc bike. Somehow, both driver and passenger seem to have a deep understanding of the laws of physics required to make such an improbably loaded vehicle balance, dynamically, a feat made all the more impressive when one takes into account the state of the roads. Away they go, slowly moving towards their destination.
Walking the entire length of the beach, we found it actually extends for quite a distance. We went all the way to the end, from the promenade to the point where the ocean meets the local river, over an hour walk. On the horizon, the never ending green-and-blue sea is interrupted by fishing boats and some flying fish, all framed on a background of clear blue skies. There is the occasional cloud. The coast is populated by a musseque-like fishing village, one or two stationed boats alternating with one or two houses and vast expanses of empty space, small groups of village people roaming up and down the hot sands. An impromptu fish market near a tiny agglomeration of boats; fishermen and their women selling the catch of the day. As the river nears, the land becomes greener. All the while, at a distance, one can see many palm trees and green vegetation. Then, the intersection between river and sea arrives. The waters become tumultuous, brown, dangerous. There are little islets of land in the river. Time to return. The experience is repeated, but this turn in reverse.
Elsa's auntie Teresa put us in touch with a couple of her contacts that lived in Benguela: Ricardo and Pedro. The guys gave us some basic tips with regards to the town and its surroundings, where to eat, key places to visit and such. One of the spots that got mentioned was Baia Azul. We had heard of it before, probably in conversation with Lau and Leonor, and talking to the boys made us even keener on seeing the place. The name translates literally to Blue Bay, and, says who's been there, its a most fitting description. The boys pointed us on the right direction with regards to means of transportation but, owning cars, they didn't know the ins and outs of getting there by candongueiro. However, they did know somebody who knew someone who had an inkling on how things worked. Following their tip, we decided to wake up early and wait on a busy roundabout for a candongueiro heading towards Baia Azul. Plenty went by, many shouting "Baia". We stopped a few, but as soon as we asked "Baia Azul?", the cobrador would reply negatively: "Baia Farta!" and quickly move on. This went on for some time, so much so that we started to feel that either there weren't that many candongueiros to Baia Azul or we were waiting on the wrong place altogether. But, never fear. To our rescue comes a candongueiro whose cobrador had a big desire to fill the last remaining seats, even if it required talking to customers for more than ten seconds. Instead of replying to the usual question with the usual answer, he was kind enough to point out that no candongueiro actually headed to Baia Azul. Instead, best thing to do was to go with him towards Baia Farta and stop at the Baia Azul intersection. There, we could either hitchhike or walk up - not a huge distance, he says, convincingly. We jumped in, hoping that this cobrador was not just trying to milk us of our precious 80 kwanzas. Somehow space appeared in the crowded minibus - "Are you sure there are two seats available? Where??" - and off we went. Much to Shahin's displeasure, she was stacked next to a fisherman who must have just finished taking his fish to the market. Eventually, after quite some time riding, the cobrador signalled the driver to stop, in a place that seemed like pretty much every other place along the way: dry, hot, sandy, a few rocks. Upon closer inspection, it did vaguely look like an intersection; a sandy road shot into the distance, but appeared to lead deep into the mountains. There wasn't much time to think in the rush of the exit, but once we were out and the candongueiro had left, the precariousness of the situation became immediately clear. In front of us laid a long, really long sandy road, heading somewhere far in the distance - nothing that looked walkable, most certainly not in this heat. Other than the two of us, there wasn't a single living soul visible in this huge desert. We waited by the detour for a bit, deciding on the course of action. What if the guy was wrong, just trying to fool the foreigners? We had no way of knowing. We could be on a path to nowhere, walking for hours. We had to be sure. So we waited for someone, a car, a person whom we could ask. Eventually a car came, coming from what hopefully was the way to Baia Azul. Not ideal, not a potential lift - but still, someone. I tried to attract their attention, to stop them, but they just drove on. As I was about to return, Shahin shouts. I look back. They had changed their mind. We chatted. Turns out we were really on the right intersection, and the distance was actually walkable, hard as it was to believe from here. So we walked. The road had a turn, a bit further down the line. Twenty-or-so minutes later we found some houses, and following that we found the bay.
Baia Azul was practically empty, with the exception of one or two local kids. The scenery was stunning. The sea in front of us looked blue like the sky above it and the water was almost still, a whisper of a wave coming towards the sand. On the left, a huge, towering wall made of rock sat behind the sandy beach and continued further on, stretching into the sea. Its sheltering presence gives the bay a strange cosiness, making it look smaller and safe, but also a bit eerie with all the silence around you. To the right, the white sandy beach continues for many kilometres, almost the full half-circumference of the bay, interrupted only close to the very end by a rocky formation. The water was so calm it gave the feeling you could swim for miles, forever forward, all the way to the vast expanses of the Atlantic ocean.
We stayed at the beach for a good while, enjoying the swim and the sun. Fortunately we had brought some food with us, as the only restaurant available was shut. It seemed to only function on weekends. When the sea is calm, the water is perfectly clear, perfect for snorkeling. Unfortunately, there aren't that many fish around, making the experience less rewarding. In terms of rubbish, the beach is acceptably clean, but, in typical Angolan fashion, nowhere near spotless.
Around four o'clock we decided to make our way back into town. This was a very fortuitous decision. When we got into the intersection, all the candongueiros that went past were so full they weren't even taking any more passengers. You could see backs and heads coming out of windows, that sort of full. We waited for a while, more than an hour, but no luck. Eventually a candongueiro going towards Baia Farta stopped. We were a bit puzzled, but it had actually crossed our mind to go all the way to Baia Farta and then return towards Benguela. The driver must have read our minds because this is exactly what he proposed (the cobrador was just a little kid, his son). The driver was an extremely pleasant character, extremely apologetic for anything and everything that wasn't as he expected. When we got to Baia Farta we had to wait around for god knows how long, looking for people first and then loading fish and all sorts of other merchandise - he continuously apologised for every single delay. Very nice chap. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Baia Farta. The name looks like a bad pun with farts and the town smells the part: its a huge fishing town, with never ending rows of makeshift huts where fish is dried and sold. The smell is overpowering. To make matters worse, there's rubbish everywhere. At one end of town there is a large beach - the bay that gives it its name - but, although the natural scenery is nice, it is totally spoiled by the smell and rubbish. None of the damage appears to be permanent, mind you, and if the government decides to invest in some proper housing, Baia Farta may one day actually look quite nice. This is most certainly not the case at the moment. Many passengers later, we headed down towards Benguela.
We returned to Baia Azul a second time, but things were very different and mainly for the worse. We got a lift with Ricardo on a Sunday. Like him, most people seem to make the bay their destination of choice on weekends so there were a lot of people around. It wasn't hugely crowded, there still was lots of space on the sand and all, but it was very different from our last experience, having the whole bay just to ourselves. On top of that, the day started with a bit of rain, and although the weather had settled by the time we got to the beach - the sun was out and it was really hot - the sea was really rough. There were half-a-meter high waves. This made swimming a lot more fun, but it was impossible to snorkel since the water was full of sand. It was enjoyable, but not quite like our first outing. We had some food in the restaurant, nothing much due to its makeshift nature.
If getting to Baia Azul was adventurous, Caotinha can be considered a voortrek on its own right. Caotinha was the other must-see beach that everyone kept on mentioning. Unlike Baia Azul, all conversations on the subject were followed by "Shame its so hard to get there", "You need a pretty good jeep to climb that hill" or some other statement of that nature. Unfazed, we decided to take the same approach that brought success in conquering Baia Azul: get the candongueiro to the intersection and walk. Just to make sure the distance was walkable, we asked a few people including Pedro and Cid. Opinions varied. Pedro seem to believe it was going to be a long stretch whilst Cid was convinced it was no more than a twenty-minute stroll. Now, we had asked directions for many, many places before and we found out that, in general, anything beyond one kilometre is considered too far to walk by the vast majority of Angolans; poor people would say take the candongueiro, rich people would say drive - no one, but no one, would say "hey, that's just down the road, just walk there". To give a practical example, we had heard that getting from the intersection to Baia Azul was too far a walk. With all this in mind we decided to give it a go and repeat the battle plan. The trip started pretty much like the previous: we got a candongueiro to Baia Farta easily enough and stopped at the intersection. We even double-checked with some locals waiting at the intersection; this was indeed the right place. So we started walking. As we were on our way, the driver of a car going towards Benguela shouted something like "poor girl, why are you torturing her??" but it wasn't enough to cast doubts on our spirits. We kept on walking. The road was long. A candongueiro went past us but by the time we noticed it, it was too late. We had walked for a good forty minutes when we reached a little depression, a small hole, if you like. Nothing much, perhaps fifty metres across. Behind it, a small mountain, contoured by the sandy road. To its left, the sea. Was this the "hard terrain" that required a jeep? The sea looked so close, just behind the mountain, so much so that it made us believe we were almost there. So we crossed the hole and headed towards the hill. Less than an hour into the journey and we got to the other side of the hill. At this stage we realised our task was perhaps somewhat more difficult than what we had envisaged. There was a large prairie in front of us, and at a distance to our right, another fairly large hill. If the beach was near the town, we were perhaps thirty minutes from it. That was the good hypothesis. The bad hypothesis, however, was that the beach was behind the hill at the far end of town. This hill, a small mountain really, could not be circled round - it would have to be climbed. Hard to even estimate how long it would take to climb that huge obstacle. As we were contemplating our fate, a couple of local ladies walked past, a group of middle aged women. They confirmed our fears. The little village we were heading towards was called Caota. The beach we wanted, Caotinha, was indeed behind the mountain and there was no other way to get there other than climbing it. Around one hour and thirty minutes into the journey we got to the bottom of the hill, and readied ourselves for the climb. There was a road of sorts, wide enough for cars, so we thought it was prudent to follow it even though it was quite circuitous. We followed it for a bit, until it lead us to the top of the hill. From there the view is absolutely amazing. You can see the little village below, and further, you could clearly see Baia Azul. The rocks we had previously spotted don't allow walking from Baia Azul to Caota, but from up there one could see the interconnection between the two places. The entire bay is huge. We could also see just below us the Caota shipyards, probably the only reason for the existence of this little town in the middle of nowhere. A couple of wrecks there. As we continued walking, the other side of the hill appeared. A set of stairs led down to a little cove, and it seemed really inviting, except that there were many, many steps, hundreds if not thousands, and by then we were weary and tired and the sun was at its hottest. Instead, we decided to find an easier beach, hoping one did exist. Less than a mile down the road, a few houses appeared: a little restaurant, which much like Baia Azul's seemed to only function on weekends, and a smattering of small and middle sized beach houses. Just behind them, not even five minutes walk, laid the beach. It took us just short of two hours to get to the beach.
All the efforts were repaid in full, though. The small beach, another cove really, was totally empty. It is protected by a set of rocks, that are also used by fish as breeding grounds. Little bits of reef, or reef like things, grow on the rocks. If one was already amazed by the scenery, snorkeling was beyond words. I've never seen so many fish, of so many different kinds and colours, in one single place. Unfortunately, my knowledge of fish is rather limited so I can't even name one. Just when a marine biologist is needed, Shelbourne is not around. Due to the rocks, and the general roughness of the sea, it was not easy to get in and out of the reef so Shahin didn't really get to experience much of it. I, however, spent pretty much every single moment in the water, just coming out to warm up. It was an amazing experience.
Things were much easier on our way back. We climbed the hill, and investigated the shipyards a bit. The local kids seem to have loved us, and Shahin's camera. Eventually we decided to crisscross town, and much to our surprise a candongueiro appeared. This was extremely fortunate since there aren't that many doing the Caota route - three or so, with totally unpredictable timings. And there was even a couple of places left too, on an otherwise packed candongueiro. Our lucky day indeed.
Benguela's Market - or Caotinha part two
Our second outing to Caotinha was equally eventful, but for very different reasons. To make our lives easier, I had gathered some intelligence on the candongueiro routes during our previous trip. A fellow passenger had told me that the starting point of the journey was the market, just by the stand where goat meat was sold. Buses left from six o'clock in the morning onwards, but the only exact time was for the initial departure - all other times were dependent on journey time. After much debating on whether it was feasible to return to Caotinha or not - the two hour hike was etched on our minds - we decided to give it a go, but now taking the correct candongueiro rather than walking. The first step was to find the market and the goat meat stand. It appeared an easy task, as we knew the general direction in which to walk. However, one thing we didn't account for was that the roads were extremely muddy on that day, and that the poorer areas have much worse roads than the ones near the town centre. This was a very costly mistake that made our lives much harder by many orders of magnitude. Taking a single step required deep concentration, and there were many close call situations where one of us almost fell flat on our faces (or backs). Falling would have been disastrous because we were all walking in single file, with people in front of us and behind us, and a slip would have meant taking quite a few people down too. Fortunately it didn't happen, but it came pretty close a few times. The locals were much more practical than us, most of them walking barefoot to get better grip. We, however, feared the general discomfort of stepping on mud - not to mention the fear of cutting our feet - so we kept on walking with our sandals on. To make matters worse, one of my extraordinarily expensive hiking sandals decided to break there and then. Although Karrimor guarantees them for at least a year, mine didn't even last two months. That's when the ridiculousness of this guarantee business becomes apparent. I mean, if your shoes break in the middle of nowhere in a six-month trip, are you expected to carry them for the remainder of the time and walk barefoot all the while? Hardly. For more than half-an-hour we trudged towards the market, feeling, calculating each single step. Eventually we reached the market. However, our troubles were far from over. Instead of a nice, small market like say the Benfica market in Luanda, Benguela's market is HUGE. In all aspects. Its massive in terms of area, in terms of the number of people around, in terms of the types of merchandise for sale. And this market is made by the locals, for the locals - we didn't even spot any mulattoes, let alone white or Asian people. We just didn't know where to begin looking for the goat meat stand. Its one of those things, probably trivial once you know what you're looking for, but absolutely impossible for someone who has never been to a proper African market. We were dazed for a few minutes in the midst of all the confusion, candongueiros going up and down, people shouting everywhere, different kinds of animals everywhere too.
On the plus side, we were at the right place to fix broken shoes, or so we thought, so as soon as our heads cleared and adjusted to the surroundings, we went in search of a shoemaker. We were a bit intimidated by the fact that we stood out like sore thumbs, but there wasn't much we could do about it, so we just got on with the task at hand. Due to the structure of the market, with its very narrow roads overflowing with products, compounded by the mud and the crowds, it was actually very difficult to negotiate our way round. On top of that, we had to ask every five seconds for some more clues, since the directions we got from everyone were pretty sketchy. I'm not entirely sure how we managed to find the shoemaker, but somehow we did it. It took a good deal of asking and searching, of trying to decipher clues, but in the end the chap was there, fixing another customer's shoe. The shoemaker was old, probably in his fifties or sixties, and he worked slowly and patiently but with great dexterity. His tools were all hand-crafted and seemed to fit their purpose very well. He finished the previous customer's job and then turned his attention to me. Without much explanation from my part, he immediately diagnosed the problem and started working in fixing it. With no mercy or regards to brand names, he hole-punched, sowed, and hole-punched some more. The fallen strap was back in its rightful place in no time at all and the sandal felt as solid as before, if not more. The job was done in a fairly seamless manner. I felt somewhat guilty in paying the craftsman the fifty kwanzas he demanded, so I added an extra twenty - not quite enough to make me feel good about it, but at least the gesture was appreciated by the shoemaker.
We then went back to hunting the goats. After much misleading information - we walked up and down, up and down the market - we ended up settling on a stand that had a few goats, although these ones were alive and walking about. It wasn't quite what we expected, but then, what had we expected? There were candongueiros stopped everywhere, going to several destinations. Swarms of people everywhere. Many candongueiros were heading to Lobito, others to Catumbela and other nearby towns. However, we couldn't find a single one going to Caota, nor could we find a person able to confirm the usual departure point of these candongueiros, tried as we might. We asked lots of people, but no one knew anything useful. After standing for a while, it became clear that we were not going to find the right goat stand. So our only other option was to take a candongueiro to Baia Farta as we had done previously and walk the road up yet again. This was not a pleasant option, but the confusion of the market was fast becoming unbearable and we had to do something. We had to go for it.
The candongueiro dropped us at the intersection and we started walking, but this time we decided to try our luck at hitchhiking. To our great surprise, not even ten minutes into the walk and a huge truck stopped. However, we were somewhat confused as there were no empty seats in the cabin, and the cargo compartment at the back was just a huge big box, not really the sort of place one would put people - not unless you're smuggling them across the channel. The driver insistingly pointed to the back, so we went round. When we got there, dozens of eyes stared at us. It wasn't really a closed cargo compartment, it was more like a cattle transport truck - but instead of cattle it transported people. The vehicle was a kind of candongueiro and it was full to the max, or so we thought. That is, until the cobrador started shuffling people around a bit to make "space" for us. I would hardly call "space" to what he came up with, but we had to make do. Shahin kept on mumbling something like "I ain't getting in there man, I rather walk!" but it was too late since I was already in the truck. She somehow managed to jump in. The thirty or so minutes that followed were, up to this point in time, our worse ever trip in any means of transportation we have ever travelled in - and this includes the twelve our bus trip to Benguela. Truly. We were standing up, crammed, surrounded by dozens of people, unable to move even one centimetre in any direction, holding on hard to a metal bar, hoping that it wouldn't somehow break. Shahin held so hard she had bruises afterwards. The truck was moving at incredible speeds, or so it seemed for us at the back. To our great relief, around thirty minutes later we arrived at the entrance of the Caota village, where many of the passengers left. The remainder of the trip was done in great comfort and Shahin even managed to find a seat on top of a pile of corn bags. The people on the truck were awfully nice, and made sure we stopped at the optimal place to start our climb to Caotinha. It was then that Cid's comments made sense; of course, its only a twenty-minute stroll from the bottom of Caota to Caotinha. The problem is getting to Caota. The climb wasn't half as difficult as last time, and we even decided to take some shortcuts.
Whilst Caotinha was still very nice, it was not as nice as the first time. The weather was hot and cloudy and the sea was much rougher, with some real waves hitting the reef. This made it really hard to get in and out of the reef - even downright dangerous, since a wave could force you against the rocks. I still managed to snorkel for quite a while, but nowhere near as much as last time. On our way back, we waited for over two hours in the Caota village for a candongueiro. There really isn't much to do in the village, so we just loitered around the only "bar" we could find, getting stared at by all the locals. Eventually we gave up and started walking. It was getting late, dusk was setting in. Suddenly we spotted a candongueiro going towards the village and we chased after it. It was a good chase, across huts, up and down roads, but eventually we got it. Once we were in it, we found out we were waiting for the candongueiro at the wrong place. This was actually the last one for the day. We got lucky yet again.
Another place that had been mentioned in our conversations with Pedro, Ricardo and Teresa was Cubal. It was described as a small city a good hundred kilometres in land in the Benguela province, with fantastic scenery on the way there. Pedro suggested getting there by train, using the CFB. Angola is currently restoring much of its infrastructure, and trains are a vital part of this effort. There are three main train lines: the CFL (Caminhos de Ferro de Luanda), the CFB (Caminhos de Ferro de Benguela) and the CFM (Caminhos de Ferro de Mocamedes, in Namibe). All three are being worked on, but of these, the CFB are the most important link since they will connect Zambia to the port of Lobito. In the past, this was a hugely important economic link, used to export Zambia's copper. Unfortunately, the work is still underway so trains in Benguela are still pretty sketchy. The trip to Cubal takes over 6 hours - the train is pretty slow - and trains only run on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Since there isn't much to do in Cubal, going by train was not an option.
As we were speaking to our landlady Dona Judite about this, she mentioned that her husband, Senhor Chico, was going to Cubal in a few days time. Senhor Chico was extremely kind: not only did he agree to take us there, but he also found us some accommodation at no extra cost. He was currently doing a project for the local government in Cubal, a small hotel, and some of the rooms were already finished - we could sleep in one of them. This was a perfect arrangement, so we set on our way. The trip there was over five hours long. The road is mostly non-existent. In fact, as he was apologising for the haphazard driving, Senhor Chico told us a joke that describes driving in Angola perfectly: "In England you drive on the left; in Portugal you drive on the right; in Angola, well, you drive wherever you can." If you have never driven in Angola you won't understand how true and close to the bone this joke is, but for us it summarised our experiences. Senhor Chico could spend ten minutes driving on the left, followed by half-an-hour on the right, all the while jerking and twisting past holes. It must be a funny experience seeing somebody drive from up above; its almost like they're following an invisible road, turning where there doesn't seem to be any apparent turns, stopping in the middle of nowhere, leaving the road on detours that are not signalled at all.
Whilst the drive was not particularly pleasant on the stomach department, the eyes had plenty to feast at. The road to Cubal is full of greenery, increasingly so as you head towards the interior. Its similar to what we had experienced in Kanjala, just lush greenery, but here there are these high mountains in the background, and these huge rocks laying in the green prairies. Like Teresa had said, it is as if these rocks could talk, its an eerie experience. To make it even more eerie, Senhor Chico kept on mentioning how impossible things were during the war.
- "You couldn't drive around here in those days, no sirree. Ambushes all the time. You can still see the remainders of the wrecks, like that one there" - he says, pointing out to a bit of rust at the edge of the road. Greenery everywhere made the valleys look so peaceful. But they still looked like perfect places to ambush.
Half-way through our trip we stopped in a little town. Senhor Chico had some business to conduct there. This was a very little place, ten houses or so, a nice little village in the middle of nowhere. We were soon back on our way. In just over five hours we reached Cubal. The trip took this long because the pick-up truck was extremely loaded and we had to proceed slowly. Just as we were about to get into town and conclude yet another epic journey, a surprise awaited us. The main bridge that leads you into the town is broken, and has been broken for over a year. Senhor Chico pointed this out, in is usually dramatic tone:
- "See that over there? That's the town. We're perhaps five minutes from it, were we to go that way. Unfortunately, we have to go the long way round."
The long way round involved a lot of off road driving and dodging some really big holes, but the scariest bit of the drive was by far crossing the temporary bridge. This was a metal structure with a couple of metal panes covering the fast river moving below you. Standing before the bridge, it certainly didn't seem fit for people or animals - let alone five tonne trucks. It was very narrow, not much wider than a truck, and had absolutely no side protections, so if your steering wasn't absolutely straight you'd get to swim with the fish. That's, assuming the bridge would take your weight, of course, which seemed like very unlikely from where we stood. But, to our great surprise, a huge SGO bus crossed the bridge before us and disappeared in the distance. Then, proceeding slowly, we too crossed it, hearing the loud creaking noises metal makes. A few seconds later we were on the other side. Fifteen minutes later we entered the town.
In the sixties, Cubal was a booming town due to its sisal industry. Sisal is a straw-like material used to make baskets, mats and the like and was extremely popular in the fifties and sixties. Industries here boomed, much like they did in the rest of Angola, mainly due to the extremely cheap labour - free in many instances due to the "contract" system. This allowed Portuguese settlers to accumulate huge profits in very short time, and these profits were channelled to create lovely little colonial towns like this one. Once the war started the industries died, and along with them they took the towns they previously supported. All that is left of Cubal are its decaying colonial houses, the ruins of the sisal factories, an eerie, ghost-like town. Some of it is now being renovated, thanks to government's money, but one can see that Cubal will never be what it was - perhaps because like most of Angola in the sixties, it never "was", really; a fabrication; an invention in someone's mind. A castle in clouds. Nothing that could ever be sustainable.
We spent a whole day in Cubal, but there isn't much to do. After walking the entire town, we found the only existing cafe with its decaying pool table. There I played some pool with the locals, a sport that seems to involve every single person in the bar. Some of the chaps at the bar were part of an NGO demining team called HALO, and were working in nearby areas. In fact, Cubal was the only place in the whole of the Angola we've seen that had a sign "Do not walk: mines here". The HALO people and the locals were very nice and friendly, much like all other Benguelenses. At night we had some food in a "restaurant", but the "restaurant" is really someone's house, someone you can trust and who allows certain people to eat there, for a fee. There are no restaurants as we know it. We were also quite lucky to stay with Senhor Chico since we didn't spot a single hostel, so accommodation would most likely be a problem. All and all, it was well worth visiting Cubal, but its not the sort of place you can spend more than one day in.
The trip back was done on our trustworthy Interprovincial SGO buses, the same that took us from Luanda to Benguela. It was much more pleasant this time round though. Although the roads were equally as bad, it somehow felt much safer to travel on the bus this time round, so much so we even slept for a good part of the journey. It also helped that the trip only took three hours and a bit.
One weekend we were invited for lunch at Teresa's, Elsa's auntie - my auntie too, really, in the African paradigm of extended families. Teresa is one of my favourite characters, a most likable person, full of knowledge and experience but never showing off, always making everyone around her feel clever, always making sure everyone is alright. She is at present working for a Portuguese private university, Lusiada, located in downtown Lobito. I know of very few people who are so thoroughly Angolan and so passionate about Angola like Teresa, so when she heard the call to came and help out, she left her very successful law career in Lisbon and headed back home. We were invited for lunch, but like all African lunches it was expected to start late and last well into the evening. We waited around for our lift, but he was running late, so we decided to take our chances with the local transport system which we grew to know and love. Candongueiros leave from Benguela to Lobito at all times, but unfortunately they are almost always full by the time they cross town. Fortunately for us, one of the chaps waiting at the bus stop was extremely friendly, and not only did he explain how to get to Lobito but he also gave us his seat when a candongueiro appeared with a seat or two available. This was an unimaginable act of contrition which we really appreciated since we were all waiting for over an hour.
There's only one word to describe the road from Benguela to Lobito: dangerous. For various reasons. First, the road is narrow, in most places with only a lane in each direction, and in some parts covered in thick dust. A Chinese company is busy doing an extension to convert it into a dual-carriage way, but the work will probably last another couple of years or so. Second, there are huge amounts of kupapatas driving up and down the road, most riding their bikes pretty slowly and orderly but some do it at crazy speeds or perform crazy stunts. This also means one spends most of the time overtaking bikes. Thirdly, a lot of the car drivers on that road are just plain crazy. They drive at unimaginable speeds, particularly at night. Luckily, we never saw or were involved in any accidents on the many times we were on that road - but we were close to being in one, as I'll explain later. The panoramic views are excellent though, on those short seconds when you manage to get your eyes off the road. There are trees all around, and lots of vegetation. This area once housed Angola's sugar industry and one can clearly see why, green jumping at you from all places. At the end of this interconnecting road is a bridge, designed by the French engineer Eiffel. It does look the part, sharing many similarities with the Paris tower and Porto's bridge, such as the massive usage of metal. The bridge is in dire need of some renovating though, looking very old and decrepit. One cannot but hope that some money is channelled for this soon, before the damage is irreversible, but this may not happen since architecture and landmarks are hardly the government's first priority. We drove on for a bit longer, but the cangongueiro route ends at the entrance to the city, well before our destination. There we had to catch another candongueiro, this time to Bairro Vinte e Oito. This candongueiro stops one block away from the University. The University itself is located just behind the Port of Lobito, Angola's most important port.
Teresa lives in the residence halls, in Angola exclusively destined for teachers. This is because a large number of the teaching staff are either foreigners - mainly Portuguese - or Angolan returnees, who have no housing of their own. Housing is thus one of the perks used to attract employees, in particular because decent housing is so expensive to obtain. The apartments are very nice, charming little places, sporting tall, wide rooms - but unfortunately not many of them. They are really made for one or two people at most, and most teachers are youngsters out of university precisely in this situation. Teresa had invited some of her colleagues for dinner: Dr Napoleao and Dr Edgar, in addition to Teresa's Mom. Both doctors were very likable chaps, and Shahin took a particular liking to Dr Edgar since he spoke fluent English. He had lived for a long time in England. The food was excellent and the conversation too, and we debated well into the evening all of our country's problems and strengths, and our role in its future. At one point I was bemoaning the sad state of Information Technology in Africa in general, and Angola in particular; how we were to yet again lose another race, even before it had started. Dr Edgar's response was extremely insightful, although he was kind enough to state it in a very nice way. Truth is, people like me just love to sit and complain, without actually stepping up to do something about it. This is common to most of the diaspora. I am not ready to come and teach IT in Angola even though my contribution is dearly needed. So many of us sit in our lovely little porches in our lovely little houses in Europe, in America, with our nice jobs and our nice lifestyle, and moan from afar. You see this in the web forums, in the parties, in the gatherings. We complain on how things are being done ever so incorrectly, how so much money is being wasted, how so many important factors are not being taken into account. In reality, many of the people that took the plunge and decided to get their hands dirty are doing a sterling job given the constraints; and there are many, many constraints, many of which you only begin to understand when you are there, in situ. What they really need is for more qualified Angolans to come and help out reconstructing their country. Whilst many are coming, the numbers are nowhere near the requirements.
Once the dinner was finished, after we satiated ourselves with the lovely pudding made by Teresa, it was time to get back to Benguela. We got a lift with Dr Napoleao. This time it was really dark, that sort of dark you only see in Africa. As we were driving back, perhaps forty minutes into it, one of the kupapatas riding ahead of us decided to park up on the side. But, as any good Angolan would, he didn't park up to his right, the closest side, nor did he look back to see if there was anyone behind him. Instead, he turned wide to his left, slowly, unexpectedly, and moved towards the other side of the road. This, in the extreme dark, with almost no lights at all on the bike. Incredible. Fortunately for us, Dr Napoleao is a pretty good driver, and managed to somehow avoid the kupapata, but it is remarkable the faith that some of these people put on other drivers.
We returned to Lobito some days later, this time to actually investigate the town. We were lucky to get dropped off by Dr Napoleao and taken back by him too. We spent most of our time at Terminus, a lovely grand hotel in Restinga. Restinga is Lobito's Ilha, identical in shape to Luanda's but much wider. Much to the grin of all lobitangas, I, a kaluanda, had to admit Restinga is much nicer than Ilha. It has lovely colonial houses, wide roads and parks. It's also much cleaner. Terminus has a lovely beach behind it, similar to the concessioned beaches in Ilha. One can eat at the hotel for very modest prices, and we had two omelettes, very nice indeed, setting us back less than 2000 kwanzas for the both of us.
Our third visit to Lobito was rather... interesting. We were invited to the launch party of the Lobito's offices of a new law practice. The partners are Teresa, Dr Napoleao and Dr Jaime, and Teresa insisted on having us there. I did warn that we didn't have any special clothes other than jeans and t-shirts but she said it was going to be a small affair. We got picked up and dropped off by Ricardo. The party was at the posh Navegante hotel. We should have remembered how Angolan's love to underestimate things. I mean, really. Even the television and radio were there. The head of Lobito's port was there. And the three of us, Ricardo, Shahin and me, were the only ones wearing casual clothes. Shahin was dolled up enough, but being a girl kept on complaining all night long. In total, there must have been over one hundred elegantly dressed, fashionable people, a sort of Hello magazine party for Lobito. However, as soon as we started chatting to people we quickly got into the swing of things and it ended up being a really enlightening experience. We got to meet lots of Portuguese and Angolan returnees, some captains of industry and important people, to really get a feel for what is happening in the country. It ended up being a fantastic experience. The party lasted well into the night, dancing involved and all, but we made a move around midnight, since we still had the long drive back.
Our last visit to Lobito was via candongueiro. This time round, we decided to go to the end of Restinga, to one of the non-concessioned beaches. It was very nice, and fairly clean. We swam first on the inner side of the bay, the side facing the town. Shahin loved the water here, incredibly quiet, and I liked the snorkeling too. There were lots of fish in the water. It wasn't anywhere near the variety of Caotinha, but the fish here move around in large schools, very impressive numbers. The scenery is stunning too, with large mountains and the town. We then went to swim on the Contracosta, the ocean facing side of Restinga. Much like in Mussulo's, the sea here is rough, wavy, harder to tame. The snorkeling is great too, but one cannot avoid thinking that a shark is looming around.
All and all, we liked Lobito quite a lot, but not as much as Benguela. This is because the city sprawls a lot more, making it really hard to walk round. Just Restinga itself is huge, requiring a candongueiro to go from one end to the other. Also, whilst there are many nice neighbourhoods in Lobito, there also appear to be many more musseques, particularly at the entrance of town, making it look like a shabbier place. This is not true at all, and one can confirm that by going to Bairro Vinte e Oito and Restinga, and probably many other places we never managed to get to, but still. So as far as we were concerned, Benguela won the battle, but only marginally.