It’s been so long since my last blog that catching up is going to be a challenge. The best approach, I reckon, is to just pick up where I left off. My memories are getting a bit hazy, but thank goodness for pictures and my trusty Google Calendar. Without these two things, I would never remember where I’ve been and when!
In July, we headed out on the company boat of our friends, Mr. & Mrs. G. We knew fishing was going to be unproductive, so we planned to cruise along Mussulo Beach, nibble on some lunch, and take in the sights along the shore.
There are some very nice houses along Mussulo. According to the boat captain, most are owned by prominent generals and other government officials. Many of them look like small hotels, complete with dozens of tables and loungers set up on the shore. Most appeared empty except for occasional workers making repairs and wandering ladies selling various wares..
This lone potential customer is getting the hard sell from some ladies selling fabrics and dresses.
These young ladies were selling bread and eggs along the beach.
From our previous trips out, we have learned that proper boating etiquette has not yet made it to Luanda. More than once on this trip, we were almost run over by a fellow boater determined to have the right of way. Yikes!
If they weren’t zooming towards us, they were zooming around us. This is up close and personal, folks.
After cruising around for awhile, we spied a shanty town precariously perched on the side of a cliff. From a distance, the colorful window coverings captured the imagination.
As we approached, however, the reality was a bit less charming. I wondered why the windows on these buildings were so tiny, when they could have a very nice view of the water. But of course, I was looking at things from a first-world perspective.
You see, there was no glass in these windows.
The small size was to protect against rain and a persistent sea breeze – and for structural integrity, I imagine.
Navigating through this maze of buildings would be hard for us from the flatlands, but these residents seemed to make their way without a problem. Technically, these houses were oceanfront property, but one hard rain was liable to wash them right into the water!
As I’ve said before, there is always something interesting to look at while out and about. Case in point, the words on the boat below translate to “Mana does not want problems with your husband.” There is definitely a story there!
Looking for the beauty in a place like this can be a challenge at times, but as long as you view Luanda through the eyes of a photographer, it rarely disappoints.
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!
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!
The Road Warriors of Pungo Andongo could be the name of a post-apocalyptic Hollywood movie. Instead, it was just us – four expats in the back of two Land Cruisers, flying down a remote Angolan road, swerving around potholes, and dodging more goats than I have seen in my lifetime. In short, it was just a typical weekend for us, since moving to Luanda.
Our weekend started out innocently enough. At the invitation of our lovely friends, Mr. & Mrs. G, we planned to travel roughly six hours east of Luanda to the province of Malanje, where we would find the breathtaking Kalandula Falls and the Piedras Negras of Pungo Andongo (otherwise known as the Black Rocks). Mr. G’s company requires them to have a second vehicle (with driver and guard) on every out of town trip, so we were lucky enough to be asked along to fill the empty back seat of their second car.
They picked us up bright and early Saturday morning and we began the long trek east. The first hour or so was the usual obstacle course through Luanda’s ever-present traffic, which rivals that of any city in the world – only with a deadly twist. Too many cars, not enough roads, few traffic lights, and no crosswalks for pedestrians create a very dangerous situation. It is very common for people to be hit and killed while attempting to cross the street. Plus, there are no true “lanes” of traffic here. Most drivers take the lane markings and speed limits as merely a suggestion, and generally ignore them. After all, why limit the road to four cars across, when six or seven can fit? And why slow down for that lady with a basket on her head and a baby on her back? She shouldn’t be there anyway. As a passenger in the back seat, I generally avoid looking out of the front window. My blood pressure is high enough.
Once we made it though the log-jam, our drivers picked up speed, gunning the engine to seventy, eighty or more miles per hour, frequently slamming on the brakes to negotiate tire-puncturing potholes, herds of goats, and people making their daily treks to market or a nearby village. All of these potholes were on a new road, mind you. In recent years, many roads have been built cheaply and quickly by Chinese construction companies operating here. Judging by the size of the potholes we saw, this road will be impassable within a year or two. No matter. Someone undoubtedly made a pretty penny off of the project, so it’s all good.
We all wondered how, with so many goats wandering freely in the roads, we never saw one get hit by a car – accidentally or intentionally. After all, these people have so little and barbecued goat can be very tasty! Why not just run over a goat and get a free meal? The answer to that is simple: the penalty for hitting a goat is roughly fifty dollars – a near fortune – and the offending driver does not even get to keep the goat! The rule is, the driver must put the fifty dollars under the dead goat for the owner to collect. Supposedly, all of the locals know which goats belong to whom, and so there is no confusion. Gotta love seeing the honor system at work, even in such a difficult environment.
While the road left a lot to be desired, the scenery was spectacular: green, lush fields giving way to densely forested mountains. Along the way, we passed village after village, each one made up of thatched-roof homes built from mud bricks.
In between the villages were makeshift farmer’s markets, offering buckets of avocados, tomatoes, onions, sugar cane, and cassava, a starchy vegetable that is an Angolan staple.
After about three hours, we stopped to stretch our legs at a small, but fairly modern town called Cacuso. The manager of the hotel there welcomed us warmly with coffees and juice, and seemed to enjoy using his excellent English.
It was a refreshing and welcome break from the white-knuckle drive, but soon we were on our way. The remaining portion of our drive we travelled on much better roads, mostly built by the Portuguese many years earlier.
As pretty as the scenery was, we were anxious to get to Kalandula Falls, reportedly the second largest by volume in Africa. At long last, we pulled into the falls parking area and were immediately approached by some local lads offering their expertise as guides for the hike down to the river. They were very polite and respectful, so we took one of them up on his offer.
Mrs. G’s Angola guidebook (yes, there is such a thing!) said the trek to the base of the falls would take about twenty minutes to climb down and thirty-five minutes to hike back up. Since it was already after one o’clock, we decided to set up some chairs and eat our lunch before we began. We had always heard that the people outside of Luanda were very different, and this trip has certainly confirmed that. No one approached us for money or food, and we were able to eat in relative peace. Our “guide” even sat patiently while we finished our lunch.
Once we were done, we put away our food and chairs and walked to the top of the falls, easily identifiable by the spray seen a short distance away . Clearly, we did not need a guide for this part of the walk, but he led us along anyway. We were amazed to see the magnificent expanse of water, no doubt at a higher than normal volume due to recent rain. And we had ordered up the perfect day to see them, too. We even had a rainbow to welcome us!
Once Mrs. G and I peeked over the falls and down to the river, it was clear this was no twenty minute walk down, despite what the guidebook said. Slick rocks and muddy paths meant a surefire tumble for a klutz like me. There being no medical care for many hours in any direction, we both decided this was not the place to break an ankle. Instead, we found a shady spot with the falls as our view, put our toes in the water, and let our husbands make the climb down. Both guards were itching to go as well, as neither of them had seen the falls before. One of the guards was wearing dress shoes, so Mrs. G nixed the idea, and the poor guy was relegated to sitting with us women.
After visiting and enjoying the view for a very long time, there was still no sign of our hubbies. I would have been worried except that they were accompanied by a very capable guard – and an expert guide, of course. Finally, they both showed up, drenched in sweat and breathing heavily. It was – as we had suspected – a very difficult climb down. Both of them agreed that it was very pretty at the bottom, but I was happy to have stayed put.
Although the day was not too hot, the air-conditioning in the car was very welcome, and we settled in for our drive to the town of Malanje, where we would stay for the night. Along the way, we attempted more photos of roadside scenes, but traveling at eighty-plus miles per hour made that a bit tricky. Thankfully, as we pulled into town, we had the chance to snap a few more photos of daily life:
We were relieved to find that our hotel was clean and modern, and that they had a record of our reservation – although there were a few tense moments as they struggled to find it. It had been a long day and our drivers and guards all had relatives in the area. We rushed off to dinner so they could have some time to visit with their families after we were done.
Dinner at a local cafe was mostly edible, and none of us had any ill-effects during the night, so we counted ourselves lucky. Going to any new restaurant in Angola is a crap shoot (pardon the pun), so our requirements here are much more basic than back in the states. If the food doesn’t make you sick, the restaurant qualifies as five star!
After a restless night, due to the Malarone we were taking to prevent Malaria, we awoke to part two of our trip: a visit to the Piedras Negras du Pungo Andongo, a very unusual geologic formation of enormous conglomerate boulders. The Black Rocks protrude from the lush, green valley as if frozen in time. Not surprisingly, there are many ancient legends as to how they came to be.
We parked our cars and hiked up to a small observation point on top of one of the larger boulders. What a view!
We were chased back to our cars by a thunderstorm, but managed to get a few photos before we decided that being on top of a bald rock was not the best place to be. The hike back down was a bit slippery, but the rain cleared in time for a quick lunch before our drive back to Luanda.
There were two or three small dwellings near the picnic area, and nine local children had some small orange fruits for sale to visitors. Another group of tourists bought the lot before we had a chance to get some, but we did manage to interact with the kids by way of sharing our lunch and offering them some treats. Again, they were very polite and respectful, with the older children guiding their younger siblings to the front to get the treats first. So nice to see!
We had passed around individual packets of Oreo cookies, and were amused to see them eat the cream from the middle and leave the outside cookies neatly stacked on the table. It is doubtful that they had ever tasted Oreos before, as they are rarely available, even in Luanda. Clearly, their tastes run to more natural items. The fruit and veggies were eaten in a flash!
The drive back was the fastest and most terrifying of the trip, as the drivers attempted to make it back to city roads before dark. Granted, there are just as many potholes in the city, and they can do just as much damage to a vehicle. However, the roads we were traveling on had the added danger of large trucks avoiding similar potholes, but on the opposite side of the road. This was a game of “chicken” that we all wanted to avoid, especially in the dark. Many of the trucks carry containers which are not tied to the trailer in any way. We saw many such containers, both with and without their trailers, laying along the side of the road. One can only guess that the truck driver misjudged a particularly deep pothole and wound up missing his cargo – or worse.
I never thought I would be relieved to be in the crawl of Luanda traffic again, but I truly was. We didn’t quite make it back before dark, but we did make it home in one piece – thanks to our driver, Mario Andretti. We came away from our trip with many new memories and a better understanding of this beautiful country. Although most of it is still scarred from decades of war and poverty, there are so many natural wonders here. We feel very blessed to have the opportunity to explore Angola, especially when accompanied by such special friends – and a driver with quick reflexes…
What’s in a name? Well, these days a name (a blog name, anyway) needs to be bought and paid for. I loved my original blog name “African Cowgirl”, but so did another gal – and she paid for it first. To be fair, she is a real, true-blue cowgirl from Africa. I, on the other hand, am not an everyday, put on your chaps and spurs kind of cowgirl. I am a native Texan, grew up riding my horses instead of riding a bike and did actually herd cows – once…
They were a little smelly for me. Here I go with the smell thing again!
So…I came up with another name – Lass O’Luanda. This is partly a reference to my many hours spent on a horse (lasso) and to my fondness for the quirky and varied pub names we encountered while living in London. One of our favorites was the Lass O’Richmond Hill. I suppose I could have taken on another of my favorite pub names, The Shy Horse (the sign outside actually had a very sheepish-looking pony on it), but that name would not fit me at all and, more importantly, made no reference to this wonderful new place that I live. And so, I have now duly purchased my new name and am printing up stationary and ordering monogrammed towels as we speak…
Welcome to the Lass O’Luanda Blog. Have a pint on me!