Tanks, Booze and the Minibus of Doom

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Africa » Angola
July 28th 2009
Published: October 11th 2009
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When the last of the DRC officials had checked our passports and waved us on, we found ourselves in a big dusty square, where a group of guinea fowl pecked the remains of a soldier's sandwich, and a few sleepy shopkeepers eyed the newcomers. The Angolan immigration team were friendly, if serious, and they taught us how to say 'hello' and 'thank you' in Portuguese. I had not really turned my mind to the practicalities of travel in Angola. For days my brain had been awash with will-we-won't-we get the Angolan visa, will-we-won't-we make it through the DRC without incident... now we had, and we were here, and it was a bit like waking up after a strange dream.
As taxi drivers made their furtive approaches, reality suddenly hit home. We had been granted five-day transit visas with which to cross Africa's seventh largest country, in which decades of civil war had left a practically non-existent infrastructure. When we had told people that we planned to cross Angola by public transport, little smirks had raised the corners of their mouths. This was a poor start to our first day, too - the clock began to tick as soon as our passports were stamped, and yet our delays in the DRC had rendered this, day one, almost useless: we would make it only as far as the nearby settlement of Mbanza Congo, and would be lucky to do so before sunset. Perhaps we should have tried to bum a ride with the Belgians we met while applying for visas in Matadi? They had a van and were overlanding. I felt sure they would make it from border to border within the five-day time limit, but how much would they see of Angola and its people? And would they have wanted two freeloading backpackers on board in the first place? Our way was riskier - dumb, even - but I hoped it would have its rewards.
The share-taxi to Mbanza Congo rattled along bumpy roads, past the shells of old cars, pretty hills and small villages. In one, both the driver and our fellow passenger jumped out and ran to a shop. They came back with a bottle of beer each.
'Local beer!' grinned the driver, slugging his back as we hit the road again in the glowing afternoon light. Within minutes the bottles were empty and were flung out of the window. Seth and I smiled at each other, thinking 'these guys are characters' but this turned out to be classic behaviour when on the road in Angola.
The passenger recommended a cheap hotel in town, and we were glad of it. Waving off our beer-mad buddies, we headed inside and found simply a bar full of plastic furniture, with a row of dark rooms situated behind. A young guy, surprised to see us, stuttered that um, yes, they might have a room, he would check. Meanwhile a reclining woman on a moth-eaten sofa seemed to be doing so in a way that deliberately accentuated her curves and her eyes had an odd-combination of try-hard 'come-hither' and glazed over exhaustion. Her friend, reeking of whisky, ran over and began pawing at Seth. We were out of there in a shot, the young man calling after us; did we not want the room? We began a fruitless tour around town with a moody driver, looking for a hotel that was not a brothel and finding everywhere full because of a government visit. We ended up in a dark hotel on the outskirts of town. There was no electricity, no water, no toilet roll in the communal bathroom and the window didn't close properly. They charged us £50 for it. People had told us Angola was pricey, but this we had not expected.
'At least it's not a brothel,' I said to Seth, as we sat in the bar eating a disastrous self-made dinner of bread with stock cubes and onions.
Our fellow guests were welcoming, cheery men, who had not moved from their tables in hours and were enjoying a prolonged liquid dinner of watery Skol beer. After we crawled into bed and some hours had passed, women's voices echoed in the corridors. There was giggling, and the noises of rooms occupied, then deserted ten minutes later. More giggling, more door slamming. In the morning, we demanded a discount and left. The sun shone over the yellow houses and shacks of Mbanza Congo, their terracotta coloured roofs giving the town a jaunty look deceptive of our experience of the place. The friendly women outside their little farm houses, speaking to us in a language we couldn't understand, as well as the smiling shop keepers who greeted us as we walked to the station helped soften our hearts a little as we searched for a minibus that would take us on the long journey to Luanda.
It was about 8am, and the conductor of the minibus had a sachet of whisky hanging from his mouth. We smiled at each other, thinking 'at least this guy's not driving', and chatted to the various friendly characters who approached us while the bus was filling up, one of whom spoke very good, if formal, English. (When we said goodbye, he gave a little bow and said, 'Thank you for your cooperation,' which I thought was fantastic.) Another fine English speaker was a gentleman we shall Mr. Y for the sake of privacy, because he was with the Angolan secret services. How secret these services were, and what it really meant, was ambiguous, because the other passengers eyed him with caution and he had noticeable influence at the police checks we past along the way when we finally set off. He too enjoyed sachets of booze, his preference being for Amarula, a creamy liqueur. Again, we looked at our watches and couldn't quite get our heads around it. These locals knew what we didn't though: how bad the roads ahead really were, how long it takes to get anywhere in Angola, how very far Luanda was away. In my notebook, I have called this 'the minibus of doom' and have written in block capitals, THIS JOURNEY SUCKS! We left Mbanza Congo at around 10am. The driver, the conductor and Mr. Y sat up front. Another bus boy, mainly responsible for the loading and unloading of belongings and passengers, sat by the sliding door. He was lecherous towards me, very creepy and overly physical with all of the young women on board. I was glad to be tucked away on the back row, although he did enjoy coming to the window to beam in at me. When we had been on the bus for an hour, the boys pulled over to buy a bottle of whisky from a stall. Now it was passed along the whole front row, the driver enjoying a few slugs between navigating the dips in the red road and dodging monkeys. The family in front of us were sharing a carton of fruit juice. On closer inspection, it was a box of Sangria. The father was in the military and he showed us his papers with lofty intensity - 'ZAIRE' was printed next to his picture. He was a giant of a man, not someone to be on the wrong side of. We smiled and nodded nervously, not really sure what we were supposed to say. He was on his second box of sangria by the time the boys bought the whisky. It was midday and the whole bus stank of booze and sweat. Police checks came and went. At one, a man was softening up the officials with an amusing bribe of sangria, laying the cartons down beside the reclining officer. We couldn't help but laugh at the bizarre spectacle. Hours and hours were passing, yet we seemed to be getting nowhere. The bus had to stop every twenty minutes so that people could pee, or buy more sachets of whisky. We contented ourselves with the fact that the driver was at least sparing in his slugging, whereas Mr. Y and the other bus boys were going for gold. The closer we got to Luanda, we told ourselves, the better the roads would get. We had not considered the possibility of the minibus not even reaching Luanda that day. Late afternoon, we stopped at another bar. Seth and I sat at a table with Mr Y as he sucked on a sachet of Amarula.
'It's good that you're not driving,' Seth pointed out, 'You've had quite a few of those.'
'Yes!' said Mr Y, 'It is good, South African liqueur! It's my day off.'
We walked to a little shop and bought a few supplies:
'A tub of laughing cow, a coke, and one of those boxes of sangria, please.'
We figured, better roll with it. Maybe our fellow passengers were on to something. A bit of booze to numb the senses and calm the nerves - a chance to care a little less about putting your life in the hands of a group of maniacs.
At sunset, the bus pulled over for a police check. It did not move again for several hours. A wheel needed changing. The boys had headed out to secure more whisky. Mr Military Zaire was on the beer. He was getting quite chatty with us as his sobriety reduced. A fight started a little way down the road. Pricking up his ears, he headed off to get involved. Seth and I could hear the shouting but I didn't even want to look back to see what was happening.
'This blows', I kept saying, 'This journey... this journey sucks so much.'
Mr Creepy was grabbing at one of the female passengers who, to my surprise, was responding flirtatiously.
'Do you think they're together?' I whispered to Seth
'No, she's travelling alone with that toddler,' he replied. I put my head in my hands. (This sucks sucks sucks.)
Outside, an old man was playing with fire, literally. He was leaping around it, sticking his hand into it, running it slowly through it. The owner of a nearby petrol pump was scolding him, but didn't seem too worried about a potential explosion, nor injury. I do not know whether the old man was drunk, drugged, mad or traumatised by what he seen in his lifetime, or maybe all of those things. Our small experience of Angola so far seemed, to me, depressing. Twenty-seven years of insane civil war, this country had seen. We had talked about getting through Angola and getting visas, but I now felt hideously naive. It was becoming one of those rare times on the African Alphabet trip where I was questioning what we were doing and why. Finally, the wheel was changed. The passengers flew into a fury, however, when the bus boys decided not to hit the road but to visit a friend's house for dinner. They left us all parked outside a house while they went in to enjoy food and hospitality. Mr Military flexed his muscles and strolled around the courtyard shouting. The boys returned at last, then drove us to another mechanic - there was one more wheel that had to be changed. At this point, Seth and I climbed out of the bus, leaned back against it, and opened our carton of sangria. The whole journey suddenly seemed so ludicrous as to be funny. The sangria tasted just like it does in Menorca. I thought fondly of holidays I went on with my friend Sarah when we were sixteen, seventeen, drinking sangria in beachside restaurants, talking about boys...
It was very late when the bus boys finally decided to get us back on the road. The unthinkable happened - Mr Y, who had been drunk all day and all evening - took the wheel 'to give my friend some rest.' He drove stupidly fast, narrowly skirting potholes and other vehicles, and the chances of ending up in a ditch were seriously high. Seth's eyes were big and shiny as he stared at the road ahead in alarm.
'We're going to crash,' he kept saying.
This went on for hours. I tried to sleep but the woman next to us complained that we were taking up too much room when I rested with my back against Seth. I was disappointed in her - she had been a grump all day, and I had helped her carry her bags of fruit onto the bus. I was not taking up much room at all and yet she was holding out on me. So I did not sleep that night and neither did Seth, and the horror of being driven by a drunk man continued into the early hours. When we reached Luanda at the break of day, the bus stopped not in the city centre but in a township. Mr Y's house, in fact.
'Stay here at my house,' said Mr Y, 'the boys will drop the other passengers at a nearby station, then the bus will come back for you and we will drive you to your hotel.'
I was reluctant. It seemed like nonsense. There was no choice. We sat in Mr Y's living room, where his sister lay asleep on the floor and his wife and baby emerged from a curtained room. More family members strolled in and out, but they are blurred from my memory. The TV was on. A silent film about monks in a mountain monastery was playing. I remember thinking that watching it felt a bit like sliding down the long tunnel into death. Having not slept for 24 hours, enduring the worst journey ever, and finding myself in a stranger's house in a township nowhere near central Luanda, I thought, 'I'm going to cry.' We talked about finding a taxi. The only one we could find wanted to charge us about eight times too much. We sat outside Mr Y's house. Toddlers were playing in the dirt. I stared at a smashed CD trodden into the earth. A mouse ran under the fence and disappeared into a pipe. Four hours passed.
Mr Y was a good guy, even with his passion for Amarula and secret agent slyness. He eventually got the boys, who had gone on a joyride (booze mission?) to return the minibus, and drove us into Luanda, via
many poor townships. Spotting Mr Y as we waited in a traffic jam, a man approached the window and called him a bastard. The traffic cleared, and with obvious relief, Mr Y sped away. I wondered, is there any end to this nightmare? When he dropped us near our hotel, Mr Y asked for no money. We smiled and shook hands, and within an hour were smoking cigarettes quietly, desperately on a hotel balcony. Having eaten only biscuits, peanuts and laughing cow for the past day and a half, we went for a pizza. I almost fell asleep in mine. Next, we tried to apply for a visa extension and were told to try in Benguela, the next city on our itinerary. I was so tired I thought I might collapse on the street. The sun felt overwhelming. Luanda is on the sea, and it was the first time we had seen it since Cameroon, but all that really mattered was sleep.
That night, after some rest, we accidentally ordered chicken giblets in a restaurant, and broke all the rules of conduct by walking around Luanda at night. It did not feel dangerous. Maybe we were cocky, but surviving the minibus of doom made us feel untouchable - or like Angola had done her worst, and we were now on friendly terms with her. We made the mistake of relaxing. Thinking we could extend our visas in Benguela, we enjoyed another day in Luanda, Seth taking street photographs of basketball players, both of us watching movies and finding we were able to see the funny side of some our recent experiences, with the luxury of reflection. When we went to catch our bus to Benguela, a young jogger stopped to show us the way. In Angola, this happened frequently - people taking you under their wing. It's my most positive memory of the place. At the bus stop, chaos reigned, of course. Bus boys fought over us, one knocking hot tea all over another one as he grabbed Seth's bag and ran ahead with it. Obviously, despite the early hour, they all had bottles of beer in their hands. I settled into my seat and groaned inwardly, expecting a repeat performance of the same old routine. Seth sat on the seat in front of me and attracted the attention of a man whose crazy eyes gave away his drug abuse. He spoke a million words per second, and in French, so Seth could understand. Nervously he played with the long sleeves of his jumper as he begged for money, and told Seth, 'My name is Edward... we've had lots of war here. Lots of suffering. There's no money. There are no jobs.' He ran away, and when the bus was ready to depart, he ran back.
'God is black,' he said, 'and he lives in Mbanza Congo.'
With that, we left. Both of us waved at Edward. He had lesions on his forehead. Not for the first time in the past few days, I felt very sad.
The bus followed the coast south. There were baobab trees, such a classically African sight, and the sea was the richest royal blue. Phil Collins sang 'Another Day in Paradise' for the fiftieth time since we touched down on this continent. Everyone had to pee every twenty minutes. The busboy slugged down his beer, but we reached Benguela at sunset. Our hotel had a hot shower and two resident fluffy white dogs called Molly and Mookie. In the morning, we went to extend our visas. And we were told, sorry but no.
This was day five. The last day of our visa. In Luanda, we had been as good as assured that an extension would be possible. Now we had been refused, and were liable for a 150 US dollar fine, each, per day that we overstayed. This, and we were about 450kms from the Angola-Namibia border, in a country where public transport meanders at best. Worst of all, Angola was the country we had hoped to secure our 'Q' in. Indeed, Qs are very rare in Africa, Somalia and Botswana being the only other known options (the former not really an option, when you think about it.) Now we were rushing out of the country, how the hell would we get our Q? We had to get onwards ASAP, and I had excruciating menstrual cramps to add to the fun. We found a bus bound for the southern town of Lubango, and had to wait two hours for it to set off. Between us and Lubango, we knew there was a small town called Quilengues. Would a bus full of strangers mind if the two foreigners wanted to stop and get out, just for a moment or two, in Quilengues? Just because it began with a 'Q'? It is real testimony to the folks of Angola that they not only didn't mind the mad photographer and woman with the notebook jumping off the bus in two different parts of Quilengues, but that they were amused and even excited about it.
'Take my portrait, too!' said one of the passengers as we climbed back on board, having stopped to take pictures in a small market (at 10pm), and buying whisky sachets for our models, as well as one for our 'Q' trinket. We even stopped outside a pretty church, lit up in the darkness, so that we could appreciate it. Would you find such kindness and understanding among a group of travelling strangers in Europe? Bet your arse you wouldn't! At Lubango, it was too late to hunt for hotels, so all the passengers slept either on the bus, parked up in the station, or the nearby waiting room. I was physically and mentally exhausted, still in pain, and longing for Namibia. Come morning, we had one more bus to catch - one that would take us to the border. We sadly watched the hills of Lubango disappear behind us.
'We have to come back here one day and see this, 'said Seth, emotionally, 'I love this part of Africa. I wish we had more time.'
'And money,' I pointed out. Central Africa had cleaned our pockets out somewhat.
'But Angola is amazing. I've got some of my best photos from the whole trip in the few days we've been here, ' Seth sighed. I knew what he meant. The intense travel had been enriching. But I was making a tally in my notebook of all of the huge, rusting tanks we past along the roadside, and the fact that when we stopped to pee, nobody could go into the bushes because of landmines, made this a country that could only really make me feel sombre. There were moments when it was truly beautiful though; mountains, cliffs, palm trees, towns that clung to hills and sunsets that fell behind silhouetted baobab trees. The people, too, aside from the young male drinking cult, had been warm and approachable. But in all honesty, I wanted to leave, and I didn't really want to come back. That we might end up paying 300 US dollars to leave was an unhappy thought, and as the bus rattled slowly along the bad road to the border, it seemed like we might not reach it before it closed. Cows with bells around their necks minced across the road in a way that seemed knowing and deliberate.
'Come on, cows! Bloody cows!' said Seth with white knuckles, as the closing time crept closer. I smiled and videoed them as they loitered at the roadside. Fate would have to do its thing.
We arrived at immigration with just minutes to spare. Handing over our passports hopefully, we rode the wave of chance, hoping the expiration date might go unnoticed. Not so. We were called to a back room. Heads down, we slunk in, both of us knackered and thinking, 'damn.' Seth now underwent a remarkable transformation. His basic Spanish, learnt while we were living in the USA in 2002, suddenly made him able to kind of speak, and understand, Portuguese. He had managed a little so far in Angola, but this was impressive. I looked at him as though he was a Martian just dropped down from space, and thought, 'Man, he really is some kind of genius.'
The officials looked at our details on their computers and told us we were a day overdue, and owed them 300 dollars. Seth said, very politely, in this new, miracle Portuguese, that the circumstances were totally beyond our control, that we'd been given misinformation about extensions, that we had rushed all the way to the border as soon as we had found out, and couldn't some exception be made? A senior official took us to a back room. Here, things worked in our favour. You see, it was either we pay the state/government the classified 300 bucks, or we line the pocket of one individual and the problem would disappear. Ah Africa. So much talk of corruption. But honestly, it sucks you in, and you do become part of it. We had already had to pay bribes, and we knew it was no good thing, but in this situation it saved our skin. Forty US dollars and we were out of there. We felt bad to have played the greasing palm game and hoped we would never have to do it again. It happens to most travellers in Africa, and I admire the ones who stand up to it as much as possible. As we stepped out of Angola and into Namibia, I could not suppress a feeling of huge relief.
'You need a ride to Ondangwa?' asked an official outside the Namibian immigration post, 'I finish my shift in a minute. I'll give you a lift.'
Seth and I smiled at each other. We had come through Central Africa. I had dark circles around my eyes, like a big racoon, and there had been too many pilchards and stock cubes, too many bribes, too many nightmare journeys - but it had been the travel experience of a lifetime.


12th October 2009

You deserve medals!
Surely is the travel experience of a lifetime for you two! I can hardly believe a pair of backpackers would be making such an adventure. I read your blog from line to line, while in awe how you guys managed through it all. You deserve a trophy or some medals. I do not think I have as much courage, so I'd just be reading your blogs and travel vicariously. Thanks for sharing. And yes, that is something --- a sandwich of onions and soup cube? Wow [:)]
12th October 2009

Great blog
Great blog! I intended to cross the Congo and Angola overland when I set out across Africa back in 2004/5, but when it came to it I flunked out and flew over them. Thanks for sharing your well written experiences.
12th October 2009

hi liliram, it's so nice you enjoyed my blog. This part of the journey - the Congos and Angola - made for pretty intense travel, it's nice to be able to share it. i do not recommend the stock cube sandwich under any circumstances! too many cans of pilchards, too! Best wishes, Lu
12th October 2009

'anonymous', thanks. I can totally understand why you flew over that area back in 2004/5; the civil war in Congo would have only just (officially) ended and even these days there are areas you just can't go to because of rebels. Cheers for your kind comments. Lu
14th January 2010

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