There is always something interesting to see in Luanda. The landscape of the city is changing rapidly, with huge skyscrapers going up everywhere you look. Ten years from now, Luanda will be unrecognizable. I won’t be here to see it, of course. My days in Angola are limited, and that is why I look around with such interest. That, and the fact that it is so very different from any place I have been before.
To that end, Hubby and I enjoy walking along the Marginal on the weekend. Despite the occasional waft of cringe-inducing odors from the bay, it is a great place for people-watching and helps alleviate the claustrophobia caused by living within eye-shot of the office. Currently, there are dozens of photographs from around the world displayed along the walkway. This may seem like no big deal, but this city only has three or four museums. They are all focused on Angolan history and not readily accessible to the average Joe. One of them that I visited, the Natural History Museum, is locked behind tall iron gates. It is only open occasionally and rarely has electricity. It is very good to see something available to the average citizen free of charge, that also offers a bit of education about the rest of the world.
Today, my driver Jesus and I headed up to one of my favorite grocery stores, called Valoeste. It is in a higher-income part of the city, where many of the embassies are also located. Most of the people who shop at Valoeste are wealthy Angolans and diplomats, so the store has a very extensive selection of imported and hard-to-find items. I am always amused at the behavior of some of the wealthier fellow shoppers I come across. Invariably, if I am bagging up a larger than normal amount of something – anything – it always attracts a crowd. Before I know it, I will be pushed aside as three or four other ladies will suddenly decide they need the item too, despite the fact that they had ignored it a few moments before.
It happened again today. I was bagging up sixteen apples to take to the orphanage tomorrow for my students. All of a sudden, another woman nearly knocked me over in her quest to get the apples first! I just laughed and held my ground until I had finished bagging up what I needed. It has happened so many times, I’ve come to expect it now. Besides, I was younger than she was, so I was pretty sure I could win in a fight, if it came to that.
As I was checking out, the cashier began to fuss, speaking quickly to another cashier and pointing at her screen, obviously aghast at the price for one of my items. When I looked at the screen, I saw that my little four-pack of yogurt was 2,000 kwanzas – about fifteen dollars! I needed yogurt, but not that badly! I quickly pulled out the item and thanked the cashier for the heads-up. Just then, the crazy apple lady appeared behind me in the line. Again, she shoved her items nearly on top of mine and almost pushed me over. Elbows are great in situations like that. I just turned my body and stuck out my elbow to prevent her from going any further. Like I said in my last blog. Luanda is full of combat shopping…
Now that I have been here for almost a year (can’t believe it has been this long!), I feel much more comfortable making my way through this concrete jungle. It does get exhausting at times, fighting for survival (and apples), but what a great experience it has been! Seeing another side of the world, so very different from the US, has opened my eyes in a way I never thought possible. I’ve learned some valuable survival skills, too. The next time someone tries to steal my produce in a supermarket, they might just find themselves taken down. Hakuna Matata, my arse. That’s only for Disney movies!
Combat Shopping – everyone should try it at least once. Not many trips to Macy’s require guards and a translator, unless you are Kim Kardashian, of course. But here in Luanda, some of the best shopping is found in the most dangerous places. There is a part of town called São Paolo where the locals go to buy amazing African fabrics at rock-bottom prices. Unfortunately, it is strictly off-limits to our company’s drivers. I was able to go two years ago, when I was here on my look-see trip. Apparently, that trip was a fluke – a result of a new and inexperienced driver falling under the charms of the gal showing me around town.
Once I moved here, I knew that would not happen again. Quite frankly, I am not that charming. To go back to São Paolo, I would have to go with someone from another company. A couple of weeks ago, I finally got an invite to go. The lady who organized the trip (I will call her Mrs. S.) is a fellow seamstress and member of my bible study. I have been helping her make purses and casserole carriers to sell at the semi-annual craft fairs sponsored by the American Women’s Association. The proceeds from these sales are donated to a local orphanage, and I love to sew, so it is a win-win. It also gives me a reason to buy more fabric that even my husband can’t complain about.
For our trip to São Paolo, Mrs. S arranged two vehicles, complete with a guard and driver for each vehicle, plus a translator. Five helpers for five expat ladies – pretty good odds, I figured. I readied myself for the trip, hiding money in various pockets, stuffing my ID and phone in my bra, and spraying myself thoroughly with mosquito spray. I carried several large bags to bring back my treasures, snacks for the drive, and lots of wet-wipes.
Wet-wipes are an absolute necessity here. Every trip to the grocery store, golf course, or really anywhere, will leave you feeling grimy and in need of a good hand-washing. Even handling the Angolan paper money requires a wet-wipe afterwards. I don’t want to know why this money is so filthy, but I have actually considered tossing it in the washing machine. Money laundering for hygienic purposes – now, that is a new twist!
Our group of five ladies rendezvoused in the lobby of our building. A security official also met us in the lobby for a safety briefing, explaining the dangers of the area and introducing our guards and translator. We piled into a large van, with the second vehicle following close behind, and we were on our way. Initially, we arrived at a street which was not familiar to those of us who had been to São Paolo before. Also, it was much too far from the shop we were planning to visit. The driver suggested we park the car and walk to the shop, but he was quickly vetoed by Mrs. S., thank goodness.
Reluctantly, the driver turned onto the incredibly muddy and rutted main road of Sao Paolo, which was teeming with pedestrians, merchants, and other vehicles. All I could see were foot-deep mud puddles that I doubted we could navigate around with so many people on the sidewalks. Thankfully, the parking gods were with us, and we were able to find a place to park which was within eye-shot of the shop – and it had a mostly mud-free path to the entrance.
Once parked, the guards got out of the car first, then us gals gathered our wits and climbed out as well, staying as close together as possible. One guard led the way, one was in the middle and the translator walked at the back. The street was so crowded that people were literally pressed up next to us. We had to push our way through the crowd and move quickly to avoid being separated. It reminded me of my one-and-only trip to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, except that these people were not drunk college kids intent on getting plastic beads. We knew that the crowd in Sao Paolo was full of pick-pockets, and so we held on to our bags tightly.
We made it into the shop and up the stairs safely, and finally relaxed. Our translator said we were free to wander from booth to booth and shop to our heart’s content. As before, the sheer variety of fabrics was overwhelming, but the merchants were fairly patient as we made our selections. There were many local ladies shopping there as well. Sao Paolo is a wholesale area, if you will. The local shoppers are there to buy fabric to re-sell on the street in other parts of the city. Some of the ladies were friendly to us, making positive comments about our selections and suggesting coordinating fabrics. Others seemed irritated that we had infiltrated their turf.
We spent more than an hour picking out as many fabrics as we could carry, most of which cost about twelve dollars for a six-yard piece. The prices had definitely gone up since my previous trip, due to the devaluation of the kwanza, but they were still a bargain.
Just before we were getting ready to leave, there was a loud scuffle in one corner. A policeman was pulling one of the local ladies towards the door, while she yelled and pleaded in protest. I was not entirely sure what was happening, until our translator explained that the lady had been trying to take fabric without paying.
We waited until things calmed down and then headed back to the car, heavily laden with all of our treasures, and moving closely together. Once back at our apartment building, we spread out our purchases to show each other. Between the five of us, we had bought almost fifty fabrics, and no two were the same. We were all happy with our haul and none of us had lost a wallet in the process. Success!
Another combat shopping area in Luanda is a large craft market called Benfica. I have blogged about it before, but had a very interesting return visit there just a few days ago. On my previous trip to Benfica, I bought a lovely pair of carvings – a Pescador (fisherman) and a Zungueira (lady who carries things on her head). They are both beautifully carved from a dark wood and quite detailed. The lady even has a little baby tied to her back. The real Zungueira ladies are so amazing, with impossibly heavy and awkward items balanced on their heads and tiny, sleeping babies tied to their backs. It is one of the things I will remember most about Angola, and so I really wanted a carving to remind me of them.
When I bought the carvings, I asked the artist if it was okay to take a photo of him with his creations. He was happy to oblige – although he doesn’t look very happy in this photo!
It is a good thing I had his photo, because shortly after buying the carvings, both of them began to split as the wood dried out. The artists work, live, and sell their items without benefit of air-conditioning, and so when they are brought into a cold apartment, they don’t always fare very well. I had hoped to have them repaired, but not speaking Portuguese, I had no idea how I would find the artist again and negotiate the repair. Benfica is a huge market and I did not even know the man’s name.
As luck would have it, I have a new driver who speaks perfect English, so he is my own personal translator. His name is Jesus (pronounced zhay-zooch), and let me tell you, he is a treasure. Jesus could talk anyone into anything. I should call him Mr. Charming, but his actual name is just so fitting. Best of all, now I can say Jesus takes the wheel – literally and figuratively. Carrie Underwood would be so impressed!
So, Jesus and I went to Benfica armed with my photo and began to ask the other artists if they knew the man. It didn’t take long to find someone who knew his name, Guerra, and his phone number. Jesus called Guerra and asked him to meet us at the market. Guerra obliged and said he would arrive in a half hour. So, with a half hour to kill and surrounded by treasures of all kinds, I managed to find a few more things to add to my collection.
Guerra arrived right on time and said he would fix my carvings – for a price. Of course, he needed money to cover the materials, cab fair to the store to buy them, and lunch. I’ve lived here long enough to expect things like this, so it was no big deal. The hardest thing for me was leaving the carvings with Guerra, and trusting that he would show up two days later with them properly repaired. Jesus, with his million-dollar smile, was all high-fives and handshakes with Guerra, so I shouldn’t have worried. We went back two days later and both my Pescador and Zungueira were as good as new. Thank you, Jesus!
While I occasionally miss the huge, clean, air-conditioned malls of the US, they certainly don’t have the conversation pieces I am finding here. And you know, that fly-swatter will get a lot of use during the hot, buggy summer in Texas!
Until we moved to Angola, neither of us had ever heard of the tiny island nation of São Tomé & Príncipe. Apparently, we are not alone in this, as São Tomé is largely undiscovered by American tourists. Located off the coast of Gabon in western Africa, it is the second smallest African country. A few European and Chinese tourists have made their way to its lovely, palm-lined shores, and last week we traveled there as well, to celebrate our twenty-ninth anniversary.
São Tomé & Príncipe is a former Portuguese colony, which gained its independence in 1975. Since that time, the country has struggled to find its way financially, as so many former colonies do. You see, when the Portuguese left, they took with them the knowledge and contacts used to mass-produce and trade the coffee and chocolate grown on the island, which were its major source of income. São Tomé & Príncipe was once the largest cocoa producer in the world. Now, the buildings used in this process are half-empty and falling apart. Several countries have invested in São Tomé through hotels and various businesses, but investment dollars are coming in slowly and have not alleviated the lack of jobs.
Currently, there is fifty-five percent unemployment and an increasing birthrate in this mostly-Catholic nation. The government is trying to build up the fledgling tourism industry to fill in where coffee and chocolate production has dropped off. The island certainly has the raw materials needed for tourists: dramatic scenery, blue waters filled with colorful fish, and lovely, friendly people.
While São Tomé does not appear to suffer from the extreme concentration of wealth and corruption of many other African countries, it still faces an uphill battle should foreign investment and tourism not materialize.
São Tomé is by far the most remote place we have been to date. Luanda actually feels civilized in comparison! Not that the island is unsafe for tourists. On the contrary, we were told by our hotel manager that it is quite safe. What made it feel so remote, is the fact that flights are few, and tourists are in the distinct minority on this country of nearly two-hundred thousand people. English-speaking tourists are even rarer. In São Tomé & Príncipe, the residents speak Portuguese, Creole, and a little French.
On previous vacations, we have always spotted at least a few other American tourists, no matter where we have been. The truth is, while many of us try to “blend”, we still manage to stick out like a sore thumb! This trip was the one exception. During our five days in São Tomé, we never saw another American or British tourist. And yes, you Brits stand out, too!
Not that the lack of Americans is a bad thing, mind you. We had the feeling that we were fortunate to visit São Tomé now, while it is still somewhat of a secret. I found myself lamenting the inevitable junky souvenir shops, crowds, and commercialism that come with an increase in tourism. For now, the island is still unspoiled, and we were able to see how the São Toméans really live.
Our lovely hotel, the Club Santana, is located about a half-hour north of the main town on the island. Set amongst lush vegetation and palm trees, the resort consists of thirty or so bungalows placed high on a cliff above a lovely beach, pool and restaurant. The clear, calm waters offer great snorkeling and diving, too.
While lounging in the clean and well-appointed beach area, sipping our tropical drinks, it would be easy to forget that we were in a small, poor, African nation – except that immediately adjacent to the Club Santana there is a small encampment of fishermen and their families. This made for an interesting backdrop, as we watched the fishermen come in and out of the village in their dug-out boats with hand-stitched sails.
Our first afternoon there, we took a Jon Boat ride to a tiny nearby island to do some snorkeling. The island looked like something out of a movie, it was so perfectly formed and topped with pretty palm trees. The water around the island was quite deep (we could not begin to see the bottom), but pretty coral grew on the rocks and we saw some colorful fish as well.
On our second day, we headed out for a São Tomé island tour with a local guide, named Nilson. He spoke excellent English as he mapped out the day for us, starting with a trip to a cocoa processing facility, then a drive up to Mount Cafe to see where coffee is grown, and lastly a visit to a local fishing village. As we drove through the cocoa processing area, Nilson pointed out former slave housing and overseer buildings, most of which looked abandoned. We parked in front of a large, run-down warehouse and walked inside, our eyes straining to see in the near dark.
One lady stood over a table filled with cocoa beans, sorting through them, and then bagging up the ones that passed her quick inspection.
She was more than happy to pose for pictures, as was another man who assumed the role of tour guide for his facility. He walked us around, from one nearly empty building to another, showing us the process of fermenting and then drying the cocoa beans, and seemed very proud of the work they were doing.
By the sheer size of the buildings, it was obvious that this was once a huge industry for São Tomé, but without ready customers and the business knowledge required for trade, things had definitely slowed to a trickle. Unlike the US, there were no gift shops or t-shirts available here. We did manage to buy some São Toméan chocolate, but only in the airport as we were leaving.
Next, Nilson drove us to the coast and an area called Boca do Inferno, a blow-hole formed in the volcanic rocks by crashing waves.
We saw a man bagging up sand along the beach, and Nilson said he was stealing the sand to sell to people building houses. With fifty-five percent unemployment, you could hardly blame the guy. On the way up to see Mount Cafe, we stopped to see a lovely waterfall and then continued up, finally reaching an area where clouds swirled through the very tall trees.
After walking around a bit and learning about the different kinds of coffee grown there, my husband said he was feeling ill. He admitted that he had felt dizzy all morning, but thought it would pass. We asked Nilson to take us back to our hotel, which was about a half hour away. By the time we got back to the hotel lobby, Hubby was feeling even worse. The hotel manager offered to drive us to the local clinic to see the doctor. Once you reach our age, it is not smart to brush aside such symptoms.
Let me tell you, this was unlike any clinic I have ever seen. In one open room in the middle of the small run-down building, there were about eight beds lining the wall, and all had ladies of various ages laying in them. The young woman in charge, who the manager said was a doctor, showed us into her cramped office and took Hubby’s blood pressure. Then, we went to the small room in the back of the building, for a finger prick to check his blood sugar. After a few short questions, translated for us by the manager who had kindly stayed with us, the doctor shrugged her shoulders and said there was nothing she could do for him. Looking around at the lack of equipment and staff, we knew she was telling the truth.
We asked what we owed her for the exam, and she told the manager it was 10,000 Dobras, roughly the equivalent of forty-five cents! In this country, where the average annual income is less than three hundred dollars a year, we should not have been surprised by any of this. We gave her about ten dollars, which she accepted reluctantly, and then we were on our way back to the hotel.
Thank goodness, the dizziness went away after a short rest. After much discussion, we determined that it must have been caused by a bad reaction to the malaria medicine we were both taking. I had experience dizziness with the medicine on previous occasions, but Hubby had never had a problem before. But, he had taken two pills the previous day in an attempt to change from a morning dose to an evening dose. A little too much Portuguese wine with dinner probably played a role as well.
Okay. Bullet dodged. Note to self: do not get sick while one vacation in a tiny, third-world nation.
That evening, we enjoyed a lovely beach-side buffet dinner, complete with live music, and thanked our lucky stars that Hubby was back to his usual healthy self.
The setting of the hotel is quite lovely, so we soaked in every detail and enjoyed listening to the waves and the music. The weather was perfect, with no mosquitos in sight – a real treat coming from Texas where they are huge – and hungry.
On our last day, we climbed over the rocks that marked the end of our resort property to distribute some toys we had brought with us to the island. As we approached the “village”, the five or six kids that we had seen playing on the beach disappeared amongst the buildings, and we wondered if we had scared them off.
But, as we approached the main village dwellings, dozens of kids came out of nowhere, all running excitedly towards us! Uh-oh, this is not good. We didn’t have enough toys to go around – a cardinal sin! As expected, the kids who got to us first were all smiles, but the others were decidedly not. Oh well. Our intentions were good anyway. Another note to self: next time bring twice as many toys!
After a final evening of relaxation on the beach, followed by a lovely sunset, it was time to grab a few hours sleep before our 1:30 AM wakeup time. The 5:15 AM flight back to Luanda was the only option for several days.
The airport was a lesson in patience, as the check-in process was painfully slow and all done by hand. Our boarding passes were even hand-written on blue paper! Then, we had a two-hour wait for the customs agent to arrive. After another hour wait in the boarding area, we finally boarded the plane and had a quick nap on the way back to Luanda.
Travels in this part of the world are all about managing expectations and staying calm when things don’t go exactly as they would in the US or Europe. I’d like to say that is how I handle things every time, but those of you who know me would probably say otherwise! Nevertheless, I do try to take each place for what it has to offer and ignore the things that fall short.
Despite a few bumps, I’m happy to say, São Tomé exceeded my expectations considerably. I hope others will soon enjoy this lovely island paradise while it is still unspoiled and charming – just remember to bring lots of toys…and stay healthy!
The wonders of this country never cease to amaze me. This past weekend, we went out boating with our friends Mr. & Mrs. G and saw another fascinating sight just north of Luanda called Shipwreck Beach. The term “Skeleton Coast” is a familiar one to many of us, but for me, I did not know exactly what it meant until I moved to Africa. On our recent trip to Namibia, we skirted the southern end of this famous stretch of coastline, but were not far enough north to see any of the hundreds of shipwrecks scattered along the shore. The wrecks in Namibia were caused by submerged rocks and the legendary fog that routinely blankets the Namibian coast. In Luanda’s smaller-scale version, the wrecks were caused by man, rather than by Mother Nature.
Shipwreck Beach is an area of impressive cliffs, golden sand, and dozens of huge, rusty, abandoned ships. There are several theories as to how they came to be marooned here. Some say they rusted away from their moorings in Luanda Bay and drifted to the beach. Others say they were deliberately sunk by the departing Portuguese troops as they were forced out of the city – a sort of “up yours” after a bad break-up.
Shipwreck Beach can be reached by car, but the beach area is not entirely safe, so it is best seen by boat. Since I had never seen it before, Mr. & Mrs. G offered to take us there after we tried our luck at whale-watching and fishing first. After an hour or so of cruising and a lovely lunch, we had encountered neither fish nor whales, but we did come upon a large pod of dolphins.
Honestly, in a contest between fishing and dolphin-watching, Flipper is the clear winner every time. What could be more fun that watching those friendly, intelligent mammals frolic in the wake of the boat?
And when one particularly frisky guy decides to jump up and splash us – not once but twice – all cares of the day just vanish away.
After playing with the dolphins for awhile, we headed towards the coast, and a huge cliff complete with a red and white lighthouse came into view.
When the seas are high, the waves crashing along this cliff are quite impressive, according to Mr. & Mrs. G. I was just as happy to have calm seas, however, as big waves can also mean feeling a little green-around-the gills.
As we sailed along this impressive cliff, the rock color changed from buff to a chalky white, and it bore a remarkable resemblance to the White Cliffs of Dover.
Soon, a few shipwrecks appeared in the distance.
The ghostly, abandoned ships looked like the perfect backdrop for the next post-apocolyptic blockbuster. One can only imagine Mad Max racing along the beach as hordes of bad guys pile out of these rusting hulks to join the chase.
What tales these ships could tell, about the men who sailed them and how they came to be forever stranded on the beach. For now, they serve as a reminder of the wastefulness of war and the scars men leave on our beautiful planet.
Once we were past Shipwreck Beach, we entered Luanda Harbor, with plenty of huge ships of its own. Luanda Harbor is one of the few places in the world where a small boat like ours can get up close and personal with huge container ships, and no one seems to notice or care.
Near the marina, there is a sailing school that operates on the weekends. It is always great fun to see the local youth learning to sail, and a nice way to conclude our day out.
From rusty shipwrecks to tankers to tiny sailboats, there is always something to see in these waters!
Overlooking the bay of Luanda is the Forteleza de São Miguel, the oldest building in the city and certainly the most impressive. It was built in the late 1500’s and was a self-contained town for many years. Later, it became the hub for the slave traffic from Angola to Brazil – a dark time in the history of this country, but one that is important to remember. Today, the fort serves as a military museum and boasts a beautiful view of the city and coast.
Unfortunately, a developer is rapidly hiding this landmark by building a shopping mall smack-dab in front of it. We complain about the lack of zoning in Houston, but I cannot imagine any developer being granted the rights to build in front of such an important building. Just another example of how money is the supreme power in this country.
From our balcony, our view is also being obscured by the building of yet another skyscraper – but a tiny sliver remains. A few days ago, a friend was visiting me and we heard a very loud explosion. A few seconds later, another loud boom. We rushed to the balcony to see if a bomb had gone off somewhere. Gunshots are heard periodically around our building, but normally they are at night and never this loud.
With so much going on in the third-world these days, loud explosions are never good. Even fireworks give me the heebie-jeebies lately. But, looking down at the people milling about on the street, everyone seemed unfazed by the noise. Thank goodness, we thought. People running for cover is not what we wanted to see. Then, as we turned our eyes to Fortaleza, we could see a ball of fire and smoke, and a split second later, another boom. As we looked closer, we saw men in uniform gathered along the thick fortress wall, obviously lighting up the still-functional cannons. Oh, okay! So those are soldiers and this is a controlled display of firepower, not the latest news story about terrorists.
We had heard that the President of France was in town for a visit, so clearly the military was just showing off a bit. We assumed – though not confidently – that the canon balls were blanks. Here in Luanda, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a guy with an AK-47 strapped to his chest. Men with loaded guns are everywhere, all dressed in a variety of uniforms. With the Angolan’s obsession with weaponry, it would not be surprising if real cannon balls were flying. Like I’ve said before, never a dull moment…
While finding guns in Luanda is apparently an easy task, finding certain food items is not. For example, dill pickles are not available here. It may be hard to believe, but they were hard to find in London, too. When we lived there, I actually brought back a quart-sized jar in my suitcase – in bubble wrap, of course – and prayed the jar did not break and spill pickle juice all over my clothes. I simply could not abide those sickly sweet things called gherkins found in the UK.
Nope. The pickles I grew up with are so sour they make your eyes water, crunchy, kosher dills – and nothing else will do on my sandwiches. So, what’s a picky pickle-eating girl to do? Why, make her own, of course! So, I looked up a recipe and pulled together all of the ingredients.
In case you were wondering, the pickles came out perfectly – very tart and spicy. Of course, I always took such items for granted in the US, but it’s these little touches of home that keep me sane here in Luanda. Cannonballs may be flying, but I’ve got dill pickles on my sandwich, so life is good!