There is nothing I like better than digging my toes into cool sand while relaxing to the rhythm of the waves. Clearly, I did not do my research on Angola before I moved here, or I would have known that there are miles of deserted beaches, clean and beautiful, only two hours south of Luanda. Mr. & Mrs. Adventurous (my wonderful neighbors) have done their homework and have explored these beaches along with a myriad of other wonders within a short distance of the city. On our second weekend, they invited us to join them for a day at the beach – which turned out to be like none I had ever experienced before.
Imagine driving through continual chaos for over an hour and a half – people lined-up along a road choked with cars and motorcycles, where lanes and traffic rules mean nothing, to peddle their wares. These items can range from brooms to electronics to fish, lobster, fruit…whatever. And an occasional toilet seat to boot! The sellers walk in front of and between the cars, oblivious to the danger of being flattened by a distracted customer, and look for any response from passengers or drivers. I would have loved to take photos of this craziness, but did not dare pull out a camera for fear of having my window smashed and it snatched from my hand. Yes, that happens here. As I said, this goes on for an hour and a half…and then, suddenly you look out the window and see nature. Angola as it was meant to be. Beautiful, unspoiled beaches – just waiting to be explored.
We turned off the main road and our driver switched on his four-wheel-drive. Good choice, as the dirt road quickly became a lesson in driving over enormous potholes and through deep sand. The bumpy ride was worth every minute when the road opened up to reveal this:
The only other people on this entire stretch of beach were a man with a few fishing poles set up, and a woman digging in the sand for some sort of small mollusks. Later, a group of four or five Portuguese men showed up to frolic in the waves and then an Angolan man came by to ask for money. He was not pushy about it, gave us his spiel and then wandered off. Other than these few visitors, we had the beach entirely to ourselves for hours. We took turns walking the beach to look for shells and just enjoy the solitude and peace of the place. We ate our picnic lunches, drank some local beer called Cuca, and enjoyed visiting with Mr. & Mrs. Adventurous. What a wonderful way to unwind, and so close to the city!
On our way back, we drove by several small rural encampments, where children played in the dirt while their parents tilled a garden. Pigs, chickens and dogs were just part of the family and wandered freely. We saw a table laid with baskets for sale right next to the road, but there were no people guarding the wares. Mr. & Mrs. A, who were in the car in front of us, pulled up to the table – I assumed to buy a basket or two. Instead, Mrs. A went to the back of her car and pulled out a bag filled with cookies, chips, juice boxes, etc. No sooner had she retrieved the bag than a tiny, naked boy came running at full speed from somewhere behind some scrubby trees. His eyes and grin were bigger than he was as she handed him the prize. He grabbed the bag, and then ran to show his mother who was approaching from the same direction. She waved her thanks to us and then we were off. Another lesson learned – always carry something with you to give to these precious children. You will absolutely make their day – and your own.
Recalling our first week here, my first thought was, “Now what?” Months of preparation and worry had brought us here. Organizing our stuff, making lists, shopping for essentials…I am really good at these things, especially the shopping part! But the thought of getting settled into a routine, making new friends and finding ways to occupy my time was very daunting. Little did I know that a host of angels lived in my building. My husband’s boss and his wife – I will call them Mr. & Mrs. Boss Man – are a wonderful, gorgeous Canadian couple, whom we have come to really enjoy. Unfortunately, they are on their way out of the country. Another couple, I will call them Mr. & Mrs. Adventurous, are the kind of people who always find the coolest, off-the-beaten-path activities and delight in taking on a place at its roots. Yes, they will be leaving soon, too. Such is the friendship-life of an expat. You make a friend and then they leave. But, just as people are always leaving, there are also new people continually arriving. Expats are an inherently friendly bunch, and know how to hit the ground running. Never knowing how long you will be in a place makes you all the more anxious to get started exploring. No time like the present.
That first weekend, Mr & Mrs. Boss Man took us out to a very fancy restaurant on the water called Cais de Quatro, a lovely open-air place with great seafood and sushi. At night, it looks over the Luanda skyline, with all of its large, well-lit office buildings. If you squinted a bit (to block out the building cranes and other eyesores), you could pretend you were looking at the New York skyline. The food and conversation were both delightful, and we finally took a full breath and relaxed into our new lives.
Sunday morning, Hubby and I went for a walk on the Marginal, a newly refurbished stretch of coastline in front of the main part of the city. In a place where walking more than about a block is strongly discouraged, this little four mile walking area is a God-send.
Every one of the people we saw, except for the occasional guy passed out on a bench from a Saturday night of drinking, was just out enjoying the day. Walkers, runners, bikers, roller-blading children, and couples with strollers were such a nice sight to see! I was so worried that I would feel like a caged animal in my apartment complex – the “Cruise Ship on Land”, as the residents call it. Our eleven story apartment building is connected to an even taller office building by a pool deck, complete with a bar area, grills and plenty of space to entertain large groups.
The walk went well, except for the occasional waft of a terrible smell from large pipes emptying something-we-won’t-talk-about into the bay. Smells are just part of life here. I will have to put my American sensitivities on the back burner and just deal with it. After the walk, as we were approaching the entrance to our building, a very agitated young man began yelling at us in Portuguese and walking quickly towards us. Hubby picked up the pace and we managed to slip into the building just before we were intercepted. Not gonna lie – that scared me a bit. Hubby said there is usually a Tango Delta car parked out front (identifiable by a reflective strip on the car door), and that I can knock on the car window for help, if that ever occurs again. Good to know.
The next week was spent unpacking my suitcases, getting to know some of the ladies in the building (did I mention they are angels?), and visiting a few grocery stores to stock the pantry. When we came on our look-see visit one year ago (relocations take extremely long here, due to a cumbersome visa process), the grocery stores I saw were small, poorly-lit, smelly (I know, got to ignore this!), and more than a bit short of what I considered cooking essentials – that is, convenience foods. I’ve never been a great cook, mostly because I am just lazy and would rather go out, and living in London just played right into that. All of the grocery stores there have row after row of pre-made meals that are really delicious and very high quality. After three years there, I could count on one hand the number of times I made a meal that required a measuring cup or recipe. If it required a heat source (i.e. a microwave) then I considered it cooking. Pure bliss!
The grocery stores here have improved vastly from one year ago, but the convenience foods have yet to arrive. Folks, I gotta learn to cook. This is not an easy thing for a fifty-something gal who is more than a little spoiled. However, before you can buy food, you need CASH. This place runs on cash, cash, and nothing but cash. And the banks are not the place to go and get it. As instructed, we had brought from the US our stack of clean, new $100 bills – strapped to our bellies in a money belt. One morning, I grabbed five bills, took a deep breath and walked out of the building to the corner money-changer-lady named Luisa.
She sat on a chair, accompanied by a half-dazed boy laying across a motorcycle, and was dressed in yards of colorful African batik, with her head wrapped in a coordinating fabric. I walked up to her, stuck out my hand and introduced myself. She looked at me like I was definitely from out of town. Just give me the money, she clearly thought. I fumbled through my pockets and pulled out the bills, more than a little alarmed when she immediately got on her phone and started yelling something in Portuguese. I had no idea what was happening, so I stood nervously, looking over my shoulder and waiting for someone to try and rob me. Hello, you numbskull, I finally realized. Luisa was holding the cash, not me, and she was not the least bit nervous. After what seemed like twenty minutes, but was probably only about five, a young man came running up with a large bag full of cash. There must have been thousands in that bag! Luisa gave me the Kwanzas, I said a quick “obrigada” and headed back inside. Mission accomplished. We will not starve today.
The pantry was stocked, mostly from local grocery stores, but also through street produce sellers. These ladies carry large buckets on their heads of wonderful, fresh avocados, tomatoes, bananas and the like.
You simply hand them whatever you want to spend and they fill up a bag for you. I bought a bag of about eight beautiful Roma tomatoes for $2.00 – a real bargain as they would have been triple that in a store. This particular lady, who was sitting cross-legged in the street, had a toddler nursing at her breast the whole time she was picking out my tomatoes. She kept swatting at him, but he would not let go. Kids! What are you gonna do?
The rest of the week was spent learning how to disinfect the produce (my new best friend is bleach), fumbling through a few recipes found online, and then the week was done. I felt like a local already – not!
My purpose in starting this blog is to chronicle our experiences here in Luanda, mostly because my memory is horrible. I almost can’t write things down fast enough! We have been here for just over two weeks and my memories of the trip here are already hazy. So…I will backtrack a bit just to get it all down.
We arrived at the airport with ELEVEN huge suitcases, each one well over 50 lbs. My husband had preceded me to Luanda by a month, bringing nine suitcases of his own, and then came back to London to help me move down. I am so very glad he did! Managing that much baggage makes you question our obsession with things. We all have way too much stuff. Nothing makes that more clear than when you see it all piled up in front of you, and the British Airways check-in agent is looking at you like you are crazy. And then proceeds to charge you a pretty penny to load all of it on to the plane.
In my defense, we did not get a sea shipment for our household items. The port of Luanda, where absolutely everything that comes into the city arrives, is a chaotic and completely inefficient operation. As a result, a shipment by sea can take up to nine-months to arrive. Shipping to any normal place only takes 6 to 8 weeks, or less. So, a sea shipment is out of the question. We did get a small air shipment, but that can take anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months, so you are forced to bring everything you could possibly need for the first three months by suitcase.
Knowing that shopping here is very limited, and incredibly expensive, I filled up suitcase after suitcase with necessities such as clothes and shoes for every possible occasion, spices, batteries, a printer, office supplies, specialty coffees and teas, granola bars (for times when you don’t trust the food), and of course extra makeup and hairspray. I’m from Texas, y’all.
The travel gods were with us, as all eleven bags arrived safe and sound. I had split up my things into multiple bags, in case one or more was stolen or lost. Imagine arriving with my bag full of underwear nowhere in sight, and no possibility of buying more! Enough said about that.
We even were lucky enough to have the pre-arranged car and large van waiting for us – something that many of the new arrivals do not get. We had heard many stories of arriving with tons of bags and then sitting for hours waiting in the small, cramped arrival room for a driver to show up. Tango Delta is the name of the car service used by our company and they are known to be very unreliable. In fact, my husband had been “tango delta’d” on many previous trips. But on this trip, our driver was there, the van was there, our bags were there, and we cruised to our apartment with the infamous Luanda traffic nowhere in sight. If there had been a way to buy a lottery ticket, I would have done so on that day!
It turns out, the only thing in any of those suitcases that was worthwhile was the printer. There is very little need for hairspray and makeup here. We spend our days trying NOT to be noticed. Likewise for nice clothing. You want to look like you don’t have any money on you. Theft and muggings are a big problem in Luanda. No jewelry, a small purse (if any) and very basic clothes will be my uniform for the next three years. Loose tops and pants with pockets to hide money, keys and a phone are a must. High fashion, it is not! On my next visit home, Walmart will be my first stop.
So, we are here and our stuff is here. The apartment is lovely and my hubby has even stocked the fridge. So far, so good…