Off the beaten track: a tourist in Luanda


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Africa » Angola » North » Luanda
August 23rd 2006
Published: August 23rd 2006
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fishermen just off the coast from where I was stayingfishermen just off the coast from where I was stayingfishermen just off the coast from where I was staying

[Note: this is an "atmospheric" shot. It was too early in the morning for me and/or the camera to think about focusing properly!]
Eight things that I didn’t know about the capital of Angola a week ago:

(1) It is one of the most expensive cities in the world; I assume, the most expensive in Africa. US$10 for an iceberg lettuce, for example. And I’m assured that eating out in London seems modestly priced by comparison.

(2) The US dollar is, effectively, a second currency, thanks, in no small part, to the booming oil industry here.

(3) Along the coast, the most oft-sighted bird is the common egret; a curiously spectacular bird to be apparent in such numbers. Not a seagull in sight.

(4) There is, effectively, no tourist industry; not even a scruffy photocopied handout at the Luanda Fort where nothing is labelled, and street-sellers simply sell goods targeted at the general population rather than hassling the (non-existent) tourists. Mind you, they do that quite thoroughly: I can’t, offhand, think of anything that I didn’t see being touted to the queues of traffic at each available opportunity - from full sets of cutlery to underwear; from mobile phone car recharger kits to CDs; I even heard of goldfish being sold in plastic bags. That said, I didn’t actually ever see anyone actually BUY anything. Evidently optimism is a key requirement for indulging in this practice. There’s therefore no tired made-in-Taiwan nick-nacks; no badly-coloured postcards. There is a souvenir shop at the airport but, with the exception of a wooden map of Angola illustrating the country’s various regions (including sticking the DRC-enveloped coastal Cabinda on the top with what must be a good-sized chunk of the Democratic Republic of Congo - this could enflame international relations, should anyone actually notice), most of the merchandise looks to be pretty standard southern African fare. However, Angola’s (limited) appearance in this year’s World Cup clearly made an impact - souvenir T-shirts and caps were still plentiful in the duty free shop.

(5) Much of the infrastructure development (and, boy, does this country need it) is being carried out by the Chinese. On a typical I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine basis for international relations, Angola exports oil to China (for whom it is the biggest source of oil) and China extends Angola a US$2 billion letter of credit for development that, not surprisingly, employs a lot of Chinese.

(6) You have to carry identification documents with you; failure to do so can trigger on the spot “fines” of infinitely varying amounts. One lady I met at the airport on my way back to Windhoek talked of being stopped by the police and, when she couldn’t produce her passport, being threatened with jail if she didn’t pay the US$200 being demanded. A couple of laddish South Africans whom I met at the same time, blasé about this practice after numerous business trips to Luanda, came up with a song to commemorate this requirement:

“Documentas, por favour.
Documentas, por favour.
If you no have documentas,
Kwanzas*, por favour.”



(7) David Livingstone made it to “Loanda” in 1854; I’d never really thought about where he might have ventured after “discovering” the Victoria Falls.

(8) And lastly, refreshingly, neither Starbucks nor McDonalds has made it here (yet?), though I’m told that there is a Nando’s.

Perhaps I should have rephrased the opening line to this blog: “eight things I NEARLY NEVR KNEW about the capital of Angola. By Friday morning last week, I began to be convinced that, as I had been suspecting for the last couple of months, Someone Somewhere really didn’t want me to get to Luanda.

First there was the whole visa thing. This story could go on for pages, but, don’t worry, I’ll summarise it. There’s only so much of your collective patience that I can try. Suffice to say that you can’t get a tourist visa to Angola; you can only get a business visa. And, as you might guess, in my current position, that isn’t as straightforward as it might be. The letter of invitation from a Luandan business wasn’t a problem (we have friends in the right places!), but the letter from the Law Society (in lieu of a letter from my “employers”) took a little extraction from what had sounded like a very helpful person when I first spoke to her. After four phone calls over the course of a week, she finally managed to get the requisite letter on the fax to Colin at 4.45 pm on a Friday (I was in Edinburgh at the time), but forgot to sign it. Of course, the Angolan Embassy in London noticed this: cue YET another call to the Law Society to get them to re-fax the letter directly to the Embassy. Then there was a potentially tense discussion with the Embassy when they asked for evidence of my “earnings” - not something, of course, that they’d said on their website or on the first occasion my application was submitted. I’m not sure the lady at the desk quite understood that self-employed persons’ taxes are assessed only the year after the relevant income has been earned, but she eventually and reluctantly accepted a copy of my bank statement as evidence that I had a couple of pennies to rub together and that I wouldn’t therefore be sponging off the Angolan benefit system (if there is one!) during my stay. Can’t say I was too happy to see her taking a photocopy of aforementioned bank statement, but, so far, touching all wood in sight, my bank account doesn’t seem to have been cleaned out. Mind you, I was amused to encounter the friendly face of the Embassy four days later when I went to collect my visa: clearly the “bad cop” operates on the day that visa applications are submitted, but the “good cop” comes out to rebuild international relations and wish the successful applicant a wonderful trip to his country.

And that was the short version of events: trust me!

Next, there was the small matter of getting the flight. This hiccup caught me completely unawares: I was booked onto one of the thrice-weekly Air Namibia flights to Luanda. It didn’t even occur to me that anything really could go wrong. Air Namibia has a good reputation and had done me very well for my Windhoek/Cape Town trip…

Well, that’s until it codeshares with the Angolan national airline, TAAG. TAAG is a law unto itself. Somehow the TAAG flight was declared to be full before I’d got to the front of the check-in queue (I’d been there two hours before departure), and, indeed, before people in front of me had got to the front. I had been distracted by the amount of luggage that an Angolan lady was trying to get processed onto the flight: it made the amount of luggage that many homeward-bound Indians try to take onto a London/Delhi flight look like travelling light. She had two trolleys piled high with suitcases that, if they were actually full and properly packed, I wouldn’t have considered to be lift-able by a reasonable heavyweight Olympian. She then had a further two trolleys piled high with large boxes, and a fifth trolley piled with smaller boxes which she had to go and get cling-wrapped together to get them onto the flight. Interestingly, I later saw her as one of those who hadn’t got onto the flight; it begged the question of where on Earth her luggage had got to!

In any event, by the time I got to the front of the queue, we weren’t going anywhere. I did my “I’ve got an important business meeting” strop - not a million miles from the truth as my host that weekend was the head of the Luandan office of PricewaterhouseCoopers, and PwC is actually a client of my old firm’s and one for whom I had acted on an outsourcing four years’ ago - but, of course, that wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I didn’t think it would; I just thought I ought to get into the part, given I was travelling on a business visa.

The first “helpful” suggestion by a TAAG official whom I subsequently mentally labelled Implacable was that I should re-book onto the next day’s flight. However, when an Air
ritual humiliation for the outgoing Religious Adviserritual humiliation for the outgoing Religious Adviserritual humiliation for the outgoing Religious Adviser

Guess you had to be there; and this is the mildest of the photos!
Namibia person was finally persuaded to attend her duties at the Air Namibia Customer Service Desk, I - together with two other business travellers who had unofficially joined forces on this one - discovered that the next day’s flight, and the flight after that two days later, were fully booked.

Rumours abounded in the absence of any kind of formal or informal communication from TAAG (of course, Air Namibia was comprehensively washing its hands of the whole issue). One such was that we would be flown to Lubango on a specially-chartered plane. This momentarily excited me (once I had found out where in Angola Lubango actually was): the chance to see a little bit more of Angola…. Until I heard from one of the other business folks that the chaos of internal flights in Angola has to be experienced to be believed. Suddenly being stranded in the comparative familiarity of Windhoek International Airport didn’t seem like such a bad option.

Another rumour was that the reason the flight was full was that people without confirmed tickets had been allowed onto the flight when they shouldn’t have been. They would be met at the boarding gate and turned away,
church that we passed en routechurch that we passed en routechurch that we passed en route

...somewhere near the Luanda football stadium; sorry not to be more informative!
with those of us with confirmed seats being substituted in their place. Fat chance. And no-one took our details to be able to carry out this process properly anyway. However, we subsequently learnt that the TAAG flight was going via Lubango - and, frustratingly, only about seven people on the flight were actually going the whole way to Luanda. Mine not to reason why….

After a couple of hours, Implacable’s boss, Scary (I REALLY wouldn’t like to meet her on a dark night!) appeared with a blank-ish bit of A4. This looked positive. Without any preamble being given, those of us stalwarts still waiting at the airport (was this part of TAAG’s plan? Wait until the majority of the affected passengers had dissipated in disgust before confronting the problem?) scuttled forward brandishing tickets and mobile phone numbers. After another hour (writing about it, the timeframes seem comparatively short; they didn’t at the time), she emerged to say that we were being booked into a Windhoek hotel overnight and would be given a lift back to the airport the next morning to try for the Air Namibia flight. We demanded priority treatment on that flight; she demurred in an at-the-time
post-run humiliationspost-run humiliationspost-run humiliations

...although, courtesy of aforementioned outgoing Religious Adviser, the forfeits were now in measures of 18-year old Glenfiddich
comforting, and the next day deeply frustrating, manner.

After YET another hour, the transport finally arrived: one combi. Was this really supposed to cater for all dozen or so of us that remained, complete with the Angolans’ luggage? While Mega-Luggage-Lady’s bags seemed to have evaporated, piles of luggage seem generally to be a returning-Angolan Thing. Fortunately a second combi appeared, although its existing contents, a grumpy-looking German Namibian and a dazed-looking French couple didn’t appear exactly pleased to have their space invaded by three adults and two children, and some pretty sizable pieces of luggage.

And so to the Safari Court Hotel. Which I hated. This was my first brush with starred accommodation on this trip - it’s a four-star hotel - but I felt like a fish out of water. It’s a business hotel, better than some and worse than others in which I’ve stayed in my Previous Life, but, as such, it could have been ANYWHERE. Still, beggars and all that. TAAG were paying, so I tried to while the time away as best I could. Keeping my fingers crossed for the impact on Windhoek’s water supplies, I indulged in a bath, and then read my
my canine hostsmy canine hostsmy canine hosts

Meet Maya, Cassius and Max... Contrary, possibly, to the reputation of the species, they reinforced my high opinion of Rottweilers' friendliness to those they know
book and listened to my Outjo-replenished iPod music collection (courtesy of the lead scientist on the elephant project, I’d been able to add to my iPod’s paltry collection of 750 songs with such evocative sounds as Cold Chisel - very reminiscent of my time in Oz).

I woke early the next day and re-packed, breakfasted and prepared to leave in a leisurely manner, conscious that we were being picked up at 7.30 am. Or so I thought. Reception rang me at 7.10 am to tell me that the transport was already here. When I got downstairs, I found myself in an unusual position: me, the painfully-punctual, ex-City lawyer being chastised by Portuguese (so much for the laid-back Mediterranean approach) and Africans (not exactly renowned for time-keeping) for being “late” when, to my mind, I was 20 minutes’ early. Someone had moved the goal-posts; how was I to know?

But that wasn’t the end of it. Our Portuguese sheep-dog having herded us on board the usual combi, we were then stopped from leaving the hotel compound by a security guard, purportedly acting on instructions from the hotel’s reception that one of us had not paid his/her room bill. Cue a cacophony of Portuguese, Portuguese-accented English and moderated southern African-accented English (I stayed schtum: plenty of others fighting this particular battle, I felt). Twice the guard, having re-consulted with reception, came back to our vehicle seeking a particular offender - first “Leo”, then “Anita” - only to be met by a further outburst. I even added my own tuppenny’ worth by the end. Finally, the gate was raised. The driver, a black Angolan, then did a passable Formula One impression. I’m losing count how often I’ve travelled the Windhoek/Airport road - a distance of 45 km - but this must have been the fastest trip!

On arrival at the airport, I strode off to the Air Namibia check-in desk to find out my fate…. and was told that I was on standby for that day’s flight; could I come back at 10 am to see if there was room for me? Once again, I trotted out the “rearranged business meeting” line, on top of emphasising that my failure to get on yesterday’s flight was the airline’s fault but, of course, once again, to no avail. Pessimistic about my chances of getting onto the flight, I started considering alternative destinations for the next few days: Windhoek to find replacement hiking boots after my beloved 12-year old pair had died a valiant death in Kaokoland (suitably enough, they finally bit the dust at the time we found the dead elephant); Outjo to go back to the peace and quiet of somewhere I almost thought of as home (all things are relative when you’re on the road: I’d probably spent more time there than anywhere else since mid-June, and it did come complete with a substantial book collection, good music and access to a TV); or Swakopmund where I could console myself for failing to get to Luanda with another sky-dive…. always supposing, in the case of the latter two potential destinations, that I could negotiate a hire car: all the outlets at the airport seemed to be exhausted.

I also investigated the possibility of a refund for my ticket and was assured by Air Namibia that I would get a full refund, but only if I went to either the London office where I’d bought the ticket (dead convenient, I don’t think!) or the Windhoek head office, and only provided that TAAG could give me a letter acknowledging the flight overbooking… I went to camp outside TAAG’s offices, but no-one had appeared by the time I’d decided to go and picket the check-in desk again. And there I found both Implacable and Scary. This time, Scary looked almost relaxed. When I asked about the letter, she assured me that there were “plenty” of seats on that day’s flight and it wouldn’t be an issue (so much for it being “full” the previous day; indeed, one of my co-business passengers had already managed to get onto this flight with a new ticket his office had bought the day before). Scary then took my ticket and handed it in to the check-in counter, around which were gathered, rather unprepossessingly, a lot of other people in the same position as myself. About half an hour later, Scary called me over, and I was presented with something that I thought I’d never see: a boarding pass for the flight to Luanda. I was stunned!

First impressions of Luanda from the skies: haze, red soil, yellow roofs, blue and white combis. Luanda is very different to anywhere I’ve ever been: of that there’s no doubt. But there are echoes of other places: of Bali airport in terms of the muggy heat that greets you off the plane and to which, after South Africa and Namibia, I’m not at present accustomed; of Zanzibar Town in the ad hoc mishmash of what purport to be, for want of a better term, “retail outlets” - often as little as clothes on hangers on nails hammered into a wall, or bunches of bananas in a girl’s hands; of Kandy in the locals’ approach to driving; of the Mediterranean in the occasional pan-tiled roof. But very much of its own in the dirt road off which my host’s house is situated, in the sound of waves crashing just below the veranda, in the endless chatter of Portuguese, in the colours and clothes, in the attractiveness and quiet dignity of its people, and, sadly, in the rubbish on the streets and the poor condition of the roads of this country’s capital city.

After my page of how-to-get-through-Luanda-airport-in-one-piece instructions courtesy of my host, the whole experience was pretty smooth. Yes, I had to wave a yellow fever inoculation certificate but, having arrived on an Angolan-dominated flight, the queue for my end of Immigration was pleasantly short. Admittedly, there was a moment of quiet reflection when the crowds around the baggage carousel diminished before there was any sign of my pack, but I was hopeful there’d be another load when I saw my co-standby-ers were also luggage-free; and so it transpired. All in all, 40 minutes from landing to meeting my host’s driver, Henriques: infinitely better than almost all my landing-in-London-airport experiences! And, I didn’t have to make any “facilitating payments”, in anticipation of which I had come armed with a few US dollar bills.

There’s very little to see in Luanda. Rosemary, the current British ambassador’s wife and a friend of my host’s, kindly took me round Luanda Fort on the Monday afternoon. It’s walkable from the British Embassy - very little is walkable (or should be walked) in this city, so it was an outing she enjoyed, even if we did have to take a gently-spoken Ghurkha guard with us. The sun kindly deigned to make one of its few appearances, and the views were impressive. But, frustratingly, as I’ve mentioned, there’s no information about anything there. There are a few corridors still lined, albeit a little patchily, with some original Portuguese blue tiles, the colour still impressively vivid 200-300 years on; there’s a large but random collection of weaponry and military vehicles dating back over the last, possibly, 150 years; and there’s a curious collection of statues in the front square, looking for all the world as if they’ve just been picked up from various places around the country and dumped here (which, I imagine, is not a million miles from the truth). But no information about any of them.

In lieu of much sight-seeing, there was a lot of socialising. The expat community here is extremely vibrant, probably largely because everyone tends to be transient, spending only a few years here. Most people (at least of those that I met) seem to be oil-related, although I also met people involved in infrastructure and diamond-mining. And it is one of the places where the HASH is alive and well. To be honest, I’d never heard of a Hash until my host mentioned in June that my visit would coincide with a “hash weekend”, but now I discover that it is an international phenomenon - complete, of course, with its own website: http://www.gthhh.com/. Essentially, it’s a way of combining getting to know a new city with exercise and company, and in safety. But, that said, it has more rituals and tradition than a St Andrew’s University undergraduate will see in his/her four years there. I guess you kinda had to be there, but suffice to say that the “religious adviser” (it may be informative in guessing at this person’s role if I tell you that a Hash is run by “the mismanagement committee”) was leaving Luanda to move to Indonesia and, as a Character with a VERY capital “C”, he was being given an emphatic send-off. In addition, this week’s Hash was to have a Pakistani flavour (it was Pakistan’s national day on 14 August): flags, stickers and badges with Pakistan’s national flag were handed out, and we were invited to a Pakistani meal at the home of a couple of the (Pakistani, not surprisingly) Hash regulars. All in all, it was a hilarious event. I earned brownie points for acquiring a Hash T-shirt in short order, and for acquiring myself a beer at the first drinks stop. Well, when in Rome and all that…

As well as the Hash, we had dinner out on both Friday and Monday, Friday’s dinner being via a drink in a bar that seemed to me to be a slightly scruffier version Harry’s Bar in Hong Kong - it was positively heaving with expats enjoying the end of the week with one of a variety of Portuguese beers - and Monday’s dinner being at a restaurant part way along the sandbar that is Ilha de Luanda, looking back at the lights of Luanda city. Most places look attractive by night, and Luanda is no exception. And on Sunday, after a (painfully!) early walk for the three lively and characterful Rottweilers (and a further kip for yours truly), we had a delightful leisurely lunch with friends of my host’s, punctuated, very appropriately, by the cricket (until Pakistan refused to come back onto the pitch after tea and the ball-tampering allegations) and Manchester United’s pounding of Fulham in their first Premiership game of the season. Well, it wouldn’t be life in an English expat’s house otherwise!

However, Luanda is a very long way away from anywhere; less so in terms of mileage (in this day and age, this isn’t the main issue) than in terms of (in)accessibility. The difficulties in getting there - and not exactly a super-smooth journey back to Windhoek on Tuesday - made me admire those who chose (some less voluntarily than others, I admit) to work there for any length of time. Landing back at Windhoek, driving along the road into town with its familiar hills and golden grasses (only then did I realise how much I’d missed the countryside in Luanda), and breathing the fresh, clear air of Namibia, I felt as if I’d come home.


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12th December 2009

Great piece!
Enjoyed reading this! Great stuff. And good on you to publicise the hotos of the blue tiles in the fort - I do hope some of them do survive! I was also a Hash member - in 1997 and 1998. Rui
7th October 2010

Landfill
I am an American Captain thast has worked in Luanda for 4 years, and I really do not have anything good to say about it, except stay away from this place at all costs!!!! No reason ever to come here, its strictly 3rd World and will never ever change. This place is just one big Landfill full of garbage and human feces all over.

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