Saturday, February 10, 2007

Notebook of a Return to My Native Land - part 12

Luanda, Again

Our return from Benguela to Luanda was planned to be fairly painless, even potentially pleasant: we decided to fly back. There had been just too many travelling adventures to recount and we needed just a little bit of easiness, just that little bit of quietness for a change. However, this being Angola, flying was not entirely straightforward. We had spoken to Teresa, who convinced us not to buy a ticket beforehand. Recalling some of her experiences, she told us that at one time she had bought three plane tickets for a single flight - no refunds given, of course. Best to go to the airport without a ticket and buy one there and then, she suggested. This we did. Although candongueiro routes didn't seem to service the airport, it was easy enough to get there via taxi. When we arrived, we were immediately asked whether we had a ticket or not. We didn't. From that point onwards, the attendant started behaving in a shady sort of way, looking both ways before talking and speaking really low. Actually, everyone in the small airport suddenly seemed to act in a fishy way, like they were all in a secret we didn't know. The chap told us not to buy a ticket, and to stay in the empty waiting room till further notice. After a while he showed up again, said there was a potential flight, possibly via Lubango. Were we interested? If yes, he had to part with 230 USD. Unfortunately we didn't have any change, something he quickly picked up on, and somehow he managed to convince us he deserved the extra 20 bucks for the effort of sorting it all out. Within seconds the attendant was gone and, with him, our 250 bucks. Yet another of those cartoon moments - you know, like when Bugs Bunny cons Elmer Fudd into doing something really, really silly, and a couple of donkey ears appear on his head before he realises the mistake. Those kind of moments. There you are, no attendant, no ticket and no money. It was hard to explain just exactly at which point did it seem like a good idea to give a total stranger a wad of cash and trust his goodwill. Oh well, now there was nothing else to do other than wait, so we waited and prayed for his safe return. Meanwhile a small plane landed. Eventually, our contact returned. He had spoken to the pilots, and there was now a direct flight to Luanda and we were on it; all we had to do is wait for the DEFA registration, and then board the plane. A little while longer, another half-an-hour or so, the DEFA person called us to fill in the paperwork. Whenever you do an internal flight in Angola you need to fill in some information like your passport details, where you're staying, and so on. Perhaps some remnants of the old, control-freak communist system. Once this was done, we waited some more. Some additional people got into the waiting room. Soon the pilots came round and called us for boarding. We all boarded a really small plane, seventeen seats in total, ten or twelve of them filled. And that was it, we were on our way to Luanda. As we were flying, some aspects of the process became clear. No tickets were ever issued. Our presence totally evaded the airline's ticketing system, and the money got paid directly to our attendant and the pilots. Thank God the plane didn't crash or otherwise no one would have ever known our whereabouts. On the positive side, the flight was excellent. We had never flown on a small aeroplane before but it was a great experience. You can see everything, and feel a lot closer to the sky as if you're skydiving or something. The sights were stunning.

When we got closer to Luanda, we started to see the effects of the rains. Estadio dos Coqueiros was completely flooded, and looked like a giant swimming pool. Most musseques were flooded too. There was water everywhere. We had missed the first real rains in Luanda, the rains that Elsa dreaded so much.


One thing we haven't mentioned much is the VISA renewal process. Don't be fooled into thinking that it hasn't kept us busy - quite the contrary. On hindsight, almost ever since we got into the country we have been doing something related to the VISA; when we weren't actually physically going to places, we had to at least ring people or pray for things to get done soon. But lets go back in time, to last December. We first went in to DEFA to figure out the exact requirements and buy the forms. We were then told by a contact that we needed a letter signed by notary stating that someone was taking responsibility for us, and the photocopy of this person's ID card. Our cousin Rosa kindly sorted this out for us, but the entire process of getting the forms, filling them in, writing the letter, getting the notary to sign it and photocopying the ID card took over three weeks. There was even a point when we almost despaired, we only noticed the letter had the wrong date on it after the notary had already authenticated the signature, but since we didn't have enough time to get a new one, we had to go with it as it was. Just before we boarded the plane to Benguela, a mere three days before our VISAs expired, we managed to hand in the forms and our passports. In return we received a receipt, and were told that it had the same legal value of our passports whilst we were on Angolan soil - best not lose it if we wanted to avoid prison. There wasn't a date for the completion of the process and it wasn't unheard of it taking months. We asked around, and people thought we should be able to go on internal flights with the receipt, but no one was entirely sure. This helped us on our decision of going by bus to Benguela. In fact, we only found out for sure when we boarded the plane back from Benguela; the receipt does work fine. When we returned two weeks later, we were told the passports were not ready yet. We wanted to go to Namibe as quickly as possible, but we also wanted to have the passports with us, so we decided to wait around a bit more. Turns out this was a very inspired decision. We were told by a contact to go to DEFA a few days later. After some haphazard queueing and loitering round, more than six hours in total, we finally managed to get our passports back. It had taken more than six weeks since we first asked about it till we got our passports back, and it was one of the fastest VISA renewals on record. We were extremely happy to see our passports safe and sound, but, in the happiness of the moment, I had forgotten to check DEFA's work. Shahin however, being the usual stickler for perfection, did check it and she was not at all happy about it. The dates on the VISA were wrong, by precisely one day. They had given us thirty days from the date we requested the renewal, not the date of the last VISA. This would make perfect sense if there was an organised department to tell you the exact rules for the renewal process and to discuss things with you, things like whether the date of your flight out was compatible with the VISA expiration date or not. This being Angola, there is obviously no such thing - you're expected to know it all. If you didn't, well, that's your problem. We contemplated going back to DEFA and complaining, but after all the trouble we had renewing the VISA - and after being told a few times that we were extremely lucky for the fast speed at which things were happening - well, it just seemed obvious we had to avoid these people at all costs. The only other alternative was to change the outgoing flights, a much more feasible alternative.

It was at this point when we finally understood why everyone hates the rains so much.

When we went to TAAG (the Angolan Airlines) we were told that the computer systems were down, so there wasn't anything they could do. What they failed to tell us, and we found out later on, was that the systems had been down for the best part of a week, with no relief in sight. We spent the entire day waiting, but the system never returned. Unfortunately, the following day was a bank holiday, Luanda's 431st birthday, so everything was closed. Friday became the D-Day.

The day started with an early trip to TAAG, but the systems were still down. Still praying that this was some kind of a temporary blip, something that would get fixed during the day, we decided to walk down the road to Western Union to get some money out. Unfortunately, their systems were down too. Whilst we waited at a local cafe, re-hydrating ourselves, Shahin managed to somehow swallow a fly. A dirty, Luandan fly. The whole scene was out of a sitcom, except it really happened. Fortunately, she didn't even puke. We laughed so much that we were stared at by all who were in the cafe as we had streams of tears rolling down our faces.

We returned to Western Union, but the systems were still down, so we decided to go back to TAAG. The systems were not working there either, and time was fast running out but there just wasn't anything we could do so we went for lunch at Nando's. On our return to Western Union, the queue had doubled in size since we last came, but the good news was that the system was back up. Whilst in the queue I met Joao Solha, a mate from high-school I hadn't seen in years. After the usual hugs and reminisces, Joao told us that Western Union had been down for more than a week, and he was fast running out of money. Today things were pretty desperate. While we were chatting, news filtered out that the system was back up, for the great relief of the massive crowds sitting outside the bank. However, it was almost three o'clock - the usual closing time - and there were tonnes of people waiting to be seen. The system could go down at any time, Joao guaranteed us, like it had happened earlier on in the week. It was up for an hour or two, but it went down and hadn't returned since then. As we queued up and chatted, we noticed that the queue wasn't actually moving. Shahin went on a scouting mission and found out that the ordered queue we had joined in an hour ago had now evolved to the dreaded Angolan queue. Angolan queues are the worst type of queues. They basically grow from the sides. For the more technically oriented, its a mix between a LIFO (Last In First Out) and a Priority Queue - the priority algorithm being how well you know the security guard at the door or the people in front of you. We all got a bit upset with all this, Shahin in particular, and decided to take action and join the front via the sides too. Everybody else was doing it too, so when in Rome... This went on for a while, with lots of pushing and shoving and shouting, until the security guard decided he had had enough:

- "Either you start forming a real queue, or no one gets in!!".

We had been in many Angolan queues before and heard the same thing before too, so we knew nothing - not a thing - would change, regardless of the best intentions of the security chap. And so it was this time too. All the people closer to the wall started shouting that there was a real queue indeed, there had been one all along and they were in it - which was true for the most part, but not entirely. The new joiners in the middle of the sidewalk also started shouting, claiming they were the real queue and always had been, and that there was no need for further organisation. The shouting match went on for a bit, with some people starting to get really agitated - including Shahin - up to a point where the security guard had enough. You have to put things in perspective. This was a Friday, after a week long without any access to money. Everyone was really desperate. To this environment, a keg of powder waiting to ignite, the security guard decides to shout:

- "OK, I've had enough! You're not willing to organise this mess?! I don't care! You can all get in!"

There was a second or two of silence, the quiet before the storm. What followed was one of the worse stampedes I've seen in my life, much worse than the previous one in the same location a few weeks ago. The really narrow door got attacked simultaneously by all sides with untamed force. I don't know how the metal frame and the glass survived it. Shahin was well in the thick of it, pushing, shouting, waving. Apparently - I wasn't close enough to the front to see this - there was a skinny lady that managed to get stuck to the door, and everyone was going past her. Shahin had to push her into the branch, probably saving her life. It was like a gold rush, except the money we were getting was actually ours to start off with. Once the confusion settled and everyone made their way in, we were told by the bank staff that there was no reason to fear: everyone inside the branch was going to get their turn - and here's the key part - provided the system was up. We put the forms into the in-tray and prayed. The Gods must have pitied us since about two hours later it was our turn, and we managed to get our money. We heard later that Joao also managed to finally access his cash, although he ended up taking a five hour lunch break to get it. Once we had the cash in our hands, we ran back from Mutamba to TAAG, all the while hoping that their system was working too and didn't crash in the mean time. TAAG was in full effect when we got there, a pretty agitated place, a rave party of a travel agency. Somehow, I don't know how really, we managed to get a ticket that was fairly close to the front of the queue. Half-an-hour later we were seen by the attendant. After the usual moaning and feet-dragging, the I'm-not-really-supposed-to-be-doing-this part, she actually managed to change the ticket to one day before our VISA expiration.

This was one of the most tiring days we've ever experienced. When we got back home we were simultaneously high, from the success, but also really low from the tiredness. We had woken up at 7 o'clock to get to TAAG and got back home more than twelve hours later, exhausted.

The road to Namibe - or should I say Lubango

All the exhaustion and stress had some really negative consequences. Shahin suddenly got a fever, very similar to the one I had experienced before. We did the usual tests at the usual doctors who, as usual, tried to help themselves of our hard earned cash - but this time they even suggested having a 50 USD X-ray when Shahin said she had a bit of a cough. That was the straw that broke the camel's back. Even I, the least money conscious person in the whole world, had just about enough of their daylight robbery. We decided to do a bit of mix-and-match with the exams, play doctors if you'd like, and choose for ourselves which exams she really needed to do. This had the desired effect, because the doctor didn't shout at us went we went back in to the room. We even had to ask him about three or for times how to read the results, jumping on him in the hospital corridors, and he must have felt sorry for us since he did explain it, somewhat. In the end, it seemed like Shahin also had malaria, although not as severe as mine. We bought the medication and followed the treatment. However, we were now desperate to leave Luanda again and this meant no rest for the wicked.

We made our way to the airport on the day of the next available flight - as usual not reserving the tickets beforehand. Shahin was pretty exhausted and ill-looking, a very worrying situation. Our contact at the airport was going to sort it all out. We got there early enough, ten o'clock in the morning, but Luanda's domestic airport proved to be a lot more confusing than the international one. Our contact told us that there shouldn't be any problems, all we had to do is wait around to buy the ticket and then for check-in. So we waited. An hour went by. Shahin progressively got worse, getting warmer. Another half-hour went by. At this point, I heard through the speaker's system - yes, they do seem to have one - something along the lines of "Namibe's flight has been cancelled!". I couldn't hear properly, and the warning wasn't issued that many times so we couldn't tell for sure. If the flight had indeed been cancelled we would have to get a cab back home and try again in a couple of days. That meant two days less of holidays outside of Luanda, and two more days of pain in the middle of the capital's confusion. The only other alternative was to get a flight - any flight - to another province and make our way to Namibe overland. This is less of a crazy idea than it sounds, and people actually do it quite frequently due to the unpredictable nature of Angolan flights. I mentioned this to our contact, who I had to keep chasing for information, and he said he could get us to Lubango - provided we were ready NOW. As in, right now, run to the check-in desk. This with Shahin dying by my side, feverish. I did as much of the running as I could, but it was unavoidable, she had to do some running around too. Somehow we managed to buy the tickets (this time we had real tickets), check-in, find the right waiting lounge, get on the bus and board the plane. It was really exhausting. Shahin was holding on just about, so much so that the flight attendant asked me if she was alright, a worried look on her face. The flight wasn't particularly long, and we soon got to Lubango. There, we were told by Rosa that, by some huge, not yet explained coincidence, a cousin of ours was also getting to Lubango within the next few minutes and would be driving to Namibe soon after. Another cartoon moment. After some waiting, during which Shahin's state improved dramatically, we finally met cousin Chico. He told us he'd be making his way in an hour or two, but in the mean time we had to find our own way into town centre and wait there for him. Fortunately for us, the people near the airport were extremely nice. Not only did they make sure we got in the right taxi, but they also kept their cafe open for Shahin while I was busy hunting Chico down at the airport. We finally got into a taxi, but this was a fixed route cab which didn't actually go all the way to town. The young taxi driver took a liking to our English, having studied in Namibia himself, and after chatting to us for a little while he decided to take us to our destination for free. Not only that, he even gave us a mini-tour of town, showing us the cheap hostels and everything. We ended up giving him some 800 kwanzas, money he reluctantly accepted. He dropped us off at the Grand Hotel, in one of Lubango's main arteries.

Lubango is the capital of the Huila province. It seems like a really nice town, and we really would have wanted to stay for a few days there, but since Rosa had already arranged for our transfer and since Shahin wasn't feeling that great still, we thought best to go to Namibe and return when possible. Lubango was once an important agricultural centre, and also had a few key factories such as Coca-Cola and Cuca, one of the Angolan beers. It still is a fairly important place, Angola's city with the highest number of Portuguese people. These two factories are alive and well, as is the cattle industry. The national university has a couple of campuses there. Its a big city as far as these things go, about the same size of Benguela, if not bigger, and seems like a pretty lively place. Because its further into the interior, Lubango is very green and lush. To our great regret, we never did manage to return there.

Our stay in Lubango was cut short by Chico's arrival at the hotel in his massive jeep. He then drove us to Namibe, down Serra da Leba. These mountains are well known to all Angolans, even to those in the diaspora that never set foot in the country, because all parents mention it whenever they reminisce about the land. When you're there you can easily understand why. The mountains are huge, magnificent. The drive is extremely impressive, and it even has waterfalls in the background. On the way up, leaving town, one can see the whole of Lubango from high above. Then, for a few kilometres one traverses a plateau, with quite a few farms. After that, the descend of Serra da Leba begins. It really is an amazing trip, a must do. As one descends and reaches flatland again, the scenery becomes less and less green, until one reaches the desert proper. The scenery then looks like Namibia. Its a huge change, but its done really gradually over hundreds of kilometres. In less than three hours we were in Namibe, standing at my cousin's Milucha doorstep.

One honourable mention goes to the roads that link Lubango to Namibe. These are the best roads we saw in the whole of Angola, so good its impossible to describe in words. There were very few holes in it, a veritable velvet of a surface.

Paludismo Strikes Back, Hard

As we got to Namibe, Shahin's health improved dramatically. Perhaps some of it has to do with the much less humid climate in Lubango and Namibe, or with the needed rest we finally got. However, just as we were celebrating her recovery, I started having a mild fever. It began on our first outing in Namibe, in which Milucha took us to see town and then to the nearby city of Tombwa. Late on that day I had a very high fever. We couldn't manage to get the fever down, even after taking medicine and having cold water showers. I ended up staying outdoors in the yard with no t-shirt on, trying to cool down. This worked for a bit, but eventually the fever came back. It was still pretty high for most of the next morning so we decided to go to the doctor. There, very swiftly, the Russian doctor determined I had paludismo - malaria - again. He also took the time to explain which exams we needed to figure out if we have malaria - Gota Espessa and Hemograma - and explained that these exams are not affected by profilaxia at all. He expressed the same extreme dislike for profilaxia as every other doctor has in Angola. All and all, not only was the service a lot better in Namibe, but the prices were more reasonable. We spent around 50 bucks in total, and this includes the doctor's time, all the medicine he prescribed and the nurse's time too. Why would you need a nurse? Well, since my fever didn't want to came down, the doctor determined I needed diperona injections. Diperona is normally taken like paracetamol, in pill form, and very much like it its used to bring the fever down. It is also available in liquid form, for the more severe cases, but this requires injecting it into the patient. To be more precise, into the patient's bum. Not only did I have to be subjected to this humiliation, but it also hurt like taking back teeth out without anaesthetics. To make matters worse, diperona was mixed with something else, some kind of anti-allergenic drug, and the end result was it knocked me out, hard. After an injection, all I could muster was to get home groggy, find my bed and sleep. The doctor wanted me to take these injections for 3 days, twice a day, but we were keen on getting off of it as soon as possible. In the end, I had three injections, by which time my body temperature was normal. My bum, however, never quite recovered from it, and I still walk funny. Around four days later I felt a lot better and was well enough to start leaving the house - that is, for reasons other than going to the clinic for injections. And so it was that our one week stay in Namibe was taken mostly by paludismo.


Namibe is actually quite a nice town, and it is a fairly emotional place for me since most of my family comes from here. It is situated at the edge of the desert, and once upon a time it was Angola's fishing district. It was also responsible for producing most of Angola's olives. Nowadays, most employment in the province is still fishing related, and many fisheries still function, but they are a bit crippled. The government is trying to reform the industry, but its a slow process.

Unfortunately, unlike Benguela, the candongueiro network is not particularly efficient in Namibe. For instance, you can't go to the nearby beaches without personal transportation. We were lucky that Milucha was actually on holidays, and was willing to spend her time showing us round. Even though we didn't have as much time as we would have liked, we still got to see most of the city, including places like my mom's primary and high-school, and my grandad's old house. It was an incredible experience. We even had time to meet up with Lau and Leonor, up from Luanda for the long weekend, also visiting relatives.

It was great to see the level of recent development in the province. Most roads have been tarmacked recently, and there a few new hospitals and schools, including a campus of the state university. Clinics work really well, as we found out. There is also some social housing. As the locals reminded us, there is still lots of work to be done - for instance, electricity and water are still haphazard - but, for such a small district, it sure seems to have managed to get their act together.

After a week in Namibe, we returned to Luanda.

Goodbye Angola

Our last few days in Angola went by pretty quickly. We just had enough time to say goodbye to people and rest a bit. We had a goodbye dinner at Chicala's Chinese restaurant, by now our favourite for both the quality of the food and the price. We were hoping to get a nice crowd, including Ica and the wife and Rui Murthala and his woman. Unfortunately, everyone seemed to be tied up. The old faithfuls Rosa as well as Lau and Leonor did not let us down. It was a great dinner. Lau offered to take us early in the morning to the airport, which was great since Macon taxi's were found to be a bit unreliable on early pickups. We were still a bit concerned, worried that somehow TAAG would mess-up the tickets and make us stay for an extra day, getting into VISA problems. Nothing of the kind happened in the end. Things went really smoothly and we even got to try the new Boeings TAAG has bought, with multimedia players on each individual desk. A few hours later we were back in Joburg.

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