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!
Cruising around on a boat with blue skies and good friends – not a bad way to spend the day. In fact, it’s the best way here in Luanda to escape the city and relax. Since returning from my trip to the states a week ago, I’ve been lucky enough to go out on the company boat twice. The first time was with some lovely ladies who live in my apartment building, and the second time, hubby and I headed out with our friends, Mr. & Mrs. Adventurous.
It is winter now in Luanda, and thus, the days are getting shorter and the weather is cooling off. The fishing season has all but ended, but the whales have yet to arrive. Still, you never know what wonders will be seen while cruising around.
I love seeing the city from the water. The crescent-shaped Marginal with its tall buildings, a marina filled with huge yachts, and palm-lined walking path, almost looks like the French Riviera. It may take a hefty dose of imagination and some squinting to see it, but the resemblance is there.
The trip from the marina through the bay and past the port is always interesting too, though not exactly postcard pretty. Virtually everything consumed in this country comes from somewhere else, and it all comes in to this one very poorly organized port. The bay is littered with all manner of tankers, drill ships and container ships, waiting to deliver their cargo. As our tiny boat passes through the shadows of these enormous, rust-covered vessels, they look almost deserted. The only sign that they are not abandoned is the bilge water pouring out of a pipe in the hull.
Once out of sight of the port, Luanda looks like any typical vacation spot, with its deep blue water and yellow sand beaches. We always cruise along the shoreline, looking at the houses, boats and people playing on the beach, and then head off to open water to see what the day will bring.
My first trip, with the ladies, brought neither fish nor whales, but we did see a number of sharks lazily swimming along the top of the water. This certainly made me think twice about taking a swim! Thankfully, the water was too cold. Once we had tired of cruising around, we headed to Mussulo Beach and enjoyed a lovely lunch at the restaurant/hotel there. It is always a pleasure to spend time with these gals, whether on the boat or not, and it was a perfect way for me to reacclimatize to Luanda after being gone for so long.
For our second trip, we were blessed with more sunny, cool weather. After cruising around for about a half hour, one of our boat motors started making a rattling noise and had to be shut off. The boat has three motors in total, so there was no worry about getting back, but we all knew that this breakdown would take the boat out of commission for several months. In fact, it takes so long to get parts brought in, that it could be well into October before it is up and running again. The second company boat is also broken, and has been for some time, so this could be our last boat ride for awhile.
Regardless of how long the repair takes, this was the last Luanda boat ride for Mr. & Mrs. A, who are retiring and moving back to the states in about a week. We all hoped this trip would bring something extra special to send them off properly, and we were not disappointed.
After cruising around at a very slow speed, due to the loss of our engine, we spied some dolphins in the distance.
Although we weren’t able to race to where they were, they were certainly not playing hard-to-get. We puttered along and easily caught up with them. Then, we meandered through the huge pod, while they jumped and played all around us.
We had seen a similar-sized pod on a previous trip with Mr. & Mrs. A, but those dolphins were much smaller – and all were headed in one direction quickly. These dolphins were huge and seemed to enjoy playing around the boat. There were also some comedians in the group, especially one fella who delighted in jumping just off the bow of the boat, turning sideways, and splashing down, drenching us all. He did this over and over again, as we squealed from being hit with the icy cold water.
I would have loved to snap some photos of his antics, but I had my camera tucked into my shirt to keep it dry. We did get plenty of shots of them just under the water and riding along beside us, and I certainly didn’t mind getting soaked. Just seeing those acrobatics was more than worth the goosebumps!
After more than a hour of dolphin play time, we headed to another stretch of beach, a bit more remote than where I had been a few days before. We anchored the boat and brought our lunches on to the beach, set up chairs and umbrellas, and just enjoyed having our toes in the sand.
There were several other large pleasure boats already anchored there, one of which also pulled a jet-ski. This made for some free entertainment when the jet-skier headed out pulling a guy along on a wakeboard. The jet-ski driver was obviously inexperienced. We could see – and hear – that the wakeboarder was none too pleased at his lack of driving skills! Over and over, the driver sped up and quickly slowed down, which caused the wakeboarder to jerk forward and then bog down in the wake and fall. Oh well, it was fun for us to watch, even if it was not any fun for the guy at the end of the rope.
After walking the beach to look for shells, tossing a frisbee and flying a kite, it was time to head back to the city – very slowly, of course. None of us minded the extra time it took to get back, as the weather was still so pleasant. We will miss going out on the boat for the next few months, but will certainly miss Mr. & Mrs. Adventurous a lot longer than that. Luckily for us, they are retiring to a place not far from where our son lives, so we plan to visit them in the near future.
Although activities like these are special indeed, it’s the people who make these postings so memorable. In our short time here, we have connected with some great folks. Our numbers may be getting smaller, but I have no doubt that the “stayers” will work just that much harder to look out for each other. That’s just what expats do!
This has been a rough re-entry to life in Luanda. A few days ago, I arrived back in Angola after six weeks in the good ‘ole USA. Laughing with treasured family and friends, enjoying wonderful meals out, and shopping till I dropped, I had completely settled back into my old life. And much needed time with my kids had refilled that empty place in my heart.
A fourteen-hour flight brought me back to Africa, and the chaos of Luanda. Of course, it was wonderful to see my husband again, as I had missed him terribly while away, but a severe case of jet lag had put me into a full-blown pity party. After four days, with no more than a couple of hours of fitful sleep at a time, I awoke this morning in a less than chipper mood.
To top it off, the situation in this country has deteriorated sharply due to plummeting oil prices. The economy here is overwhelmingly dependent on oil revenues, the lack of which means cuts to social aid and fewer jobs. In addition, the lack of incoming dollars means less money to import goods and rising prices.
The people here are suffering and petty crime is on the increase. Stories of recent attacks on expat women are running rampant in our ever-shrinking circle, and this made me none too happy to be back. One such story really had me worried. A woman was attacked while sitting in traffic in her locked car. The assailant had smashed the window and punched the woman while grabbing her purse. Very scary stuff!
Walking into my kitchen this morning, I greeted my housekeeper, whom I had not seen since my arrival. She smiled, clearly happy to see me, and then proceeded to tell me I looked “mais gorda”, indicating with her hands that my backside had expanded from all of those wonderful meals at home. I was appalled, and it clearly showed on my face, but she quickly said, “Oh no, Madame, ees beautiful!” Oh well, I guess it was to be expected after six weeks of Tex-Mex and not a day on the treadmill.
Still smarting from her comment, I headed down to meet my driver for a trip to the grocery store. I may be “mais gorda”, but we still needed food for the week. My new driver is a sweetheart, but he speaks very little English. I told him which store I wanted to visit, and even wrote it down, but he had never heard of it. This irritated me, as it was a large and well-known store, and I did not like the idea of driving around in circles on these crazy and clearly unsafe streets.
Unfortunately, I could not give him directions. In this city, it is very difficult to learn your way around as a passenger. Drivers frequently take numerous switchbacks and maze-like streets to avoid the insane traffic. My previous driver took a different route every time we went somewhere, and so, except for a few main roads, I rarely know where I am. Of course, having no sense of direction may be part of my problem, too.
The only option was for my driver to call the dispatch office and ask them where it was. He spoke in Portuguese, so I did not know what was being said, but he seemed satisfied with the directions he was given. As he started out, the main road was familiar to me, but then he drove into narrow streets filled with sinister-looking pedestrians. This made me more than a little nervous, as visions of assailants smashing my window swirled through my mind. My typically overactive imagination was running full-tilt, as I fidgeted and held my breath, looking at each passerby with suspicion. At long last, we arrived at the store and I finally unclenched my fists. All of this round and round had given me a pounding headache to go with my sour mood.
My grocery list was small and filled with very basic items, but several of my items were nowhere to be found. There were tons of hard-to-find veggies available however, so I bought them even though they weren’t on my list. I had heard grocery shopping had become even more hit-and-miss than ever, and my hoarding tendencies really kicked in. As if life here wasn’t hard enough! Now, I won’t be able to count on even the basics when I go shopping!
This is just too much, I pouted. How can it be that there is no stick butter or canned tomatoes? Finally, after several hours and three stores, I gave up and we headed back to my apartment – with a full load of veggies, but no butter.
As we drove along the main road back to town, I saw a man standing at the very top of the hillside which ran along the road. The top of the hill contained a shanty town, and the residents there regularly tossed all of their garbage over the side of the hill. This gave the appearance that this man was standing on a mountain of trash.
Then, something unexpected happened. He began to dance. Here this man was, living in a shanty town, surrounded by refuse, and he was dancing. What a blessing to be reminded that joy can be found in even the most dire circumstances. Never in my life had I been snapped out of a pity party faster!
The awakening continued.
It occurred to me that my maid was being genuine when she said I looked beautiful to her. Packing on a few pounds meant that I had a healthy appetite, plenty of good food to eat, and the leisure time for my body to hold on to those calories. In her world, many people were not so blessed. Pants that were too tight and a lack of stick butter were laughable problems compared to those she faced on a daily basis.
At that moment, I said a prayer of thanks for the reminder of how lucky I am. Life in Luanda can be a challenge, but I trust that He will keep me safe while I am here. And clearly, the Big Man is looking out for my health, too. How wonderful that He presented me with such beautiful veggies instead of more butter for my bloated backside!
I may not be the quickest on the uptake, but even I can’t miss such clear reminders that He is watching out for me, as we make our way through this crazy new life. Now, off to cook a healthy meal so I can fit into my clothes again…
With so much happening since I arrived in Luanda six weeks ago, it has been a challenge to keep my blogs up to date in chronological order. Being a Type A person, this is making me a bit twitchy. But wait – I just realized it’s Thursday! Crisis averted. I can call this a Throwback Thursday Blog! Whew, now I can breathe…
A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of going whale watching twice in one week. This first trip was at the invitation of Mr. & Mrs. Boss Man and also included another delightful couple, some friends of ours from London who had also just moved here. I will call the second couple Mr. & Mrs. Tea and Jambalaya, as he is a proper Brit and she is a down-home gal from Louisiana. This combination is both surprising and entertaining. For them, opposites attracted in the best possible way – but I would have given my right arm to witness that first “meet the parents” event!
On Sunday morning, the six of us headed out on the same boat as Hubby and I had the week before, but this time we were not having any luck finding whales. The weather was also not cooperating. Strong winds and choppy waves made for a very rough ride. After two hours of being slammed about by the waves, we finally spotted some whales in the distance. Thank goodness! I was afraid this was going to be a bust for Mr. & Mrs. T&J. The ride also became much more pleasant as the wind began to die down and the sun peeked out from behind the low, gray clouds. Moving closer, we were able to get a really good look at the group of about four or five whales. When you can see and hear them breathing, it is quite an experience! Just love that sound!
We followed this pod of whales for quite some time, but the thrill of proximity was quickly wearing off. We wanted to see more than just lazy swimming and an occasional tail sighting.
Things finally changed when Mrs. Jambalaya announced that she could speak to whales. You think I am joking? She proceeded to make Animal Planet-worthy whale sounds as proof of her abilities. Almost immediately, we saw our first whale breech! This happened several more times after that. I am now a true believer! That Cajun girl has an amazing talent:
After this amazing display, we stopped at a nearby island called Mussulo, where there is a small beach resort and restaurant. Although the service was lacking and the prices were sky-high, there was always something interesting to look at while we waited for our $40 pizzas. There never seems to be a shortage of good people-watching here in Luanda!
The second whale watching opportunity I had that week was with a group of British ladies. Go figure, I live in London for three and a half years and only make one British friend. I move to Africa and have a whole boat-load of them in a couple of weeks! And what a fun group they are, too! We didn’t have much luck with the whales, despite absolutely perfect weather and water as smooth as glass. Oh, we saw plenty of whales, but I guess they saw us first and decided to frolic elsewhere.
No worries. When the going gets tough, tough expat ladies go to lunch! We headed again to nearby Mussulo Beach, but this time we ate at the fancier restaurant set a bit back from the beach. Apparently, there is also a small hotel hidden there amongst the trees. We will have to come back for a quick weekend getaway if the clamor of the city gets to be too much. I so enjoyed getting to know these ladies, and their British accents were a welcome reminder of my time in London. Sparkling conversation coupled with yummy food (and plenty of wine) made for a very enjoyable afternoon.
I’ve learned that expat life here in Luanda is all about focusing on these little islands of tranquility amidst the sea of chaos. These moments can be found on a boat, on a beach, or just by spending an lovely afternoon visiting with new friends…
Shopping is cheaper than a psychiatrist – and you know I am all about saving money. As a child, whenever my mom told my father that she had bought something on sale, my father’s response was always, “Woman, you are saving me right into the poor house!” Well, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. I have done my share of hunting for bargains that I really did not need. But while the tide has turned in my husband’s favor with regards to my cooking, I now have the upper hand on the shopping front. People, my husband has moved me to Africa. The way I look at it, shopping is a matter of sanity preservation. Besides, there is some really cool stuff here! No more shopping for African-inspired items. It’s time to buy the real thing.
To that end, today I went with a group of ladies to a local craft market called Benfica, about a half hour south of town. It is a busy, covered, outdoor market filled with row after row of artists peddling their wares, from paintings to wood carvings, and even some illegal items to boot. If you have ever been to a bazaar in Mexico, or something similar, then you know that as soon as you look at something for more than about 3 seconds, you have now entered into a negotiation. And heaven forbid you touch something! Well, you might as well just get out the cash, because it will be yours!
Yes, Benfica is home to some master negotiators and they do not like to take no for an answer. Hubby and I had found that out the hard way a few weeks earlier, when we made a quick stop on the way to the beach. We were so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of exotic goods and overzealous salesmen, that we only stayed for about fifteen minutes. No. To do this place right, I knew that I would have to go back with a pro – someone who had lived here awhile and knew what things typically cost. And preferably this pro would be a woman. Men seem to get all hung up in the “need vs. want” argument. That can really slow things down.
We arrived at the market to find that it was much hotter than any of us expected. Immediately upon getting out of our air-conditioned cars, we all began to sweat – or “glow” as we Southern girls say. Let me tell you, I was glowing like a pig. Africa is hot y’all – and it is not even summer yet! We began on the end of the market that held many colorful paintings and beautiful African batik fabrics. A young man dressed in some of this bright fabric came up to greet us. One of the ladies knew him, and he would be our “helper” for the day, acting as interpreter and negotiator. Of course, since I do not speak the language, I have no idea if he was actually bidding the price up rather than down, but it certainly was nice to have someone there who spoke English!
Things started out well. I bought some beautiful fabrics and felt pretty good about what they cost. Not cheap, of course, but certainly reasonable. Now came the real challenge: gorgeous carvings of every description, from elephants to giraffes to masks of every size. How do you ever decide!
As it turns out, the decision was made for me. I saw a beautiful Sable Antelope, also called a Palanca, carved in a deep, ebony wood. This is the national symbol for Angola, so I knew that I wanted one eventually. I picked it up to get a closer look and wham, bam, I was handing the artist a large stack of bills! It’s like someone else was speaking through my mouth, it happened so fast. Somehow, I had managed to get him down to half of what he originally quoted me, but only because that was literally all I had in my wallet! Apparently, I’m really good at negotiating when I am broke. Oh well. Regardless of whether or not I was ready to buy, I do love my new pet. Isn’t he purdy??
At the end of the day, I learned a lot and came away with something I really love. But next time, I think I will keep my hands in my nearly empty pockets, because at Benfica – you touch, you buy. And I’d like to actually remember negotiating for whatever I bring home!
Where is home? That should be an easy question. At least it is for most people. Home could be where you were born, or where you spent your childhood years. As greeting cards and throw pillows say, ‘Home Is Where The Heart Is’. But, what if your heart is in more than one place? Being an expat means having a heart in pieces. Not that our hearts are broken, necessarily. Rather, we feel pulled in more than one direction – all of the time. When I am here, I feel like I should be there, and vice-versa. This feeling of restlessness is just par for the course, I’m afraid.
As expats living in Africa, my husband and I are here without our children, who are grown and establishing their own homes back in the states. Of course, we miss them terribly and hate missing big moments in their lives, or missing events for dear friends and extended family. Luckily, since we became expats three and a half years ago, we have managed to be there for most major holidays and events, but certainly not all of them. We knew going into this new lifestyle that missing things would be part of the deal, and we tried to prepare for that eventuality. But even with all of our preparation, there have been tears and temper-tantrums – and my kids have had their moments too! That is the downside to expat life. More accurately, that is the rip-your-heart-out-and-stomp-on-it side to expat life. None of us wants to disappoint those we love, and being absent for big moments is a painful thing. No way around it. But, where there are clouds, there are silver linings, and expat life has some that truly shine.
The biggest upside for our family has been the opportunity to travel with our kids to places they never would have gone otherwise. During the three years we lived in London, they were able to join us on ten European vacations. Chevy Chase, eat your heart out! I certainly hope they appreciate how unusual that is. Only Brad & Angie’s kids can claim more overseas vacations that that!
Another upside to our living overseas, has been to “allow” our kids to figure things out for themselves. I have always been a “helicopter” parent. Yes, I admit it. When my kids were younger, they climbed on the school bus every morning and I followed right behind. I was the PTA Queen/Homeroom Mom/Volunteer Lady and spent almost as much time at their school as they did. This continued for most of their growing-up years. I’m sure they wondered if they would ever get away from me! Because I was always there, it was easy for them to rely on me to solve their problems. I’m a fixer. It’s what we helicopter moms do. Even as they got older, I was still always there if keys were locked in a car, etc, etc, etc. But something wonderful happened when we moved away. My kids began to fix their own problems! Imagine that. Seeing them become capable and resourceful adults has been a beautiful thing. I always knew they had it in them. I just needed to get out of their way.
Yes, there are pros and cons to being an expat, and then there are some aspects that are neither positive nor negative. They are simply facts of life for many of us. As my kids have become adults and moved to different cities for both colleges and careers, we have become a scattered family. We all have to go where we can earn a living. Since my husband also travels for work, it is not unusual for the four of us to be in four different cities – and even four different countries, at times! Thank goodness for internet and social media. In these technology-filled times, many would say that home is wherever their WiFi connects automatically!
So, what is home to me now that I am living in Africa? My answer is: no matter where I am, it does not feel like home until all four of us are sleeping under the same roof. That roof may be in Paris, or London, or Munich, or even Houston, Texas. As long as we are together, it feels like home.
This is our second expat assignment, and our first where we have been offered the services of a driver and maid. Here in Luanda, a driver is a necessity, as it is not safe to walk anywhere, except a small area along the waterfront called the Marginal. The maid service is purely a luxury, one which I have not had for many years. Truth be told, I have always preferred to clean my own house, mostly because I’m a bit of a neat-freak and usually wind up cleaning behind the maid. But, twist-my-arm, I will suffer through having a maid while I am here. Poor me, right?
If I had to sum up Luanda in one phrase, it would be the verb “to wait”. The simplest tasks take an inconceivable amount of time to complete here. My driver has the patience of someone who has dealt with this waiting every day of his life. Even now, his job is to wait – for me. He sits in his car all day, waiting for a call from me or my husband, asking to be driven somewhere. On our way to wherever we are going, there will be traffic – crazy traffic. Drivers squeeze their cars in front of one another with no regard for any rules. We creep along, inches at a time. More waiting. When we get where we are going, again my driver waits in the car. Is he bored by all of this waiting? Not visibly. He appears to be perfectly content to pass the hours in the car. From what I have seen, he considers this a good job and is thankful to have it.
He is not unique in his attitude. No one here seems the least bit unnerved by waiting ridiculous amounts of time for just about everything. In the US, I can open a bank account and have a debit card in my hand in about an hour. Here, we have been working on opening an account for about two months! Aargh! More waiting. I will surely have a stroke if I don’t just accept the pace of life here! Patience is a virtue I clearly do not possess.
In Portuguese, the verb “to wait” is “de esperar”. This also means “to hope”. Somewhat ironically, my driver’s wife is named Esperanza. What does she hope for? Perhaps she hopes for the same things I do: happy children, health for my loved ones, and good friends. More likely, her hopes are for everyday things I take for granted: food on the table for her family and a roof over their heads. Being surrounded by good people just doing their best to make ends meet, well…it sure makes my problems seem small.
My maid is another example of this patience and acceptance. As young and pretty as she is, I can only imagine how different her life would be, if she had been born in the US or any other western nation. With small children to take care of and no husband to help her, life is incredibly hard. She needs this job to feed her family. When I came home the other day, she was sitting in my tiny hall closet, waiting for the dryer to be finished so she could fold the clothes before she left. I was appalled! Of course, I immediately told her it was perfectly fine for her to sit at the table, and I served her a piece of cake to make my point. It was such a strange feeling to walk in and find her sitting there in that dark closet, full of cleaning supplies and wet clothing. Even now, the picture is still fresh in my mind.
Dealing with “staff” is a new thing for me. Obviously, it is also one that makes me a bit uncomfortable. One thought has stuck in my head ever since I saw my maid in that closet: but for my fortunate birth, I could very easily have been in her place.
I don’t cook – I order. It’s not that I can’t cook, mind you. I simply choose not to. My poor husband has lived off of pre-made meals and take-out for the past five years, ever since my youngest child went off to college. I am sure out of sheer desperation, he moved me to Africa so he would get a home-cooked meal. Smart move, fella! Clearly it has paid off. Since landing in Luanda about three and a half weeks ago, I have cooked more meals that I have in the past five years! Sadly, this is not an exaggeration.
Yes, the tide has definitely turned. Right now, I have a huge pot of delicious chicken, shrimp and sausage gumbo bubbling away on my stove. The last – and only – time I made gumbo, it was 1988 and Hubby and I were newlyweds living in Anchorage, Alaska. One of our favorite couples was moving to Lafayette, Louisiana and we were hosting a large going away party for them. Just like in Texas, everything is bigger in Alaska, and so this meant we were expecting about sixty people for dinner. Clearly, I have a tendency to bite off more than I can chew.
“I’ll make gumbo!” I declared to one of my friends, who was helping me plan the dinner. “Are you sure? Have you ever made it before?” she asked, a bit too quickly. “How hard can it be?” I said, “It’s just a big pot of soup, basically.” Foolishly, I was not a bit worried about cooking for sixty people. Even more foolishly, I was not worried about cooking Cajun food for real Cajuns. Many of our guest were from Louisiana, and had eaten their share of world-class gumbo. Word soon spread that a Texan, and a first-timer at that, was attempting to make this delicate and time-honored dish.
The morning of the party, a very large woman, whom I had never seen before, showed up unannounced at my door. “I’m here to make the roux,” she said, brushing past me to head to my kitchen. Dumbstruck, I followed meekly behind her and watched in amazement as she proceeded to work my kitchen like she owned it. This gal knew a thing or two about Cajun cooking. And, by her sheer size, I guessed she knew a thing or two about eating it, too.
She stood at my stove and stirred the roux for a full 30 minutes, saying little. She was there to do a job, not make small talk. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the roux had reached a lovely golden brown – the color of a brown paper bag, by her description. Her job was done. She had saved the roux from certain ruination, and all was right with the Cajun world.
I have to admit, it was a good thing she showed up. I would have given the roux about five good stirs and then moved on – or worse, gotten distracted and let it burn. Quelle horreur! That would have been a disaster of Hurricane Ike proportions!
I’m happy to report, both the party and the gumbo were a big success, but I have never attempted to cook a roux again. The idea of another stranger showing up at my door was enough to put me off the idea. Last week, on one of my marathon hunting/gathering sessions to multiple grocery stores, I found some Hillshire Farms smoked sausage – and did a little jig in the aisle when I did. Finding American products here in Luanda is like finding gold! And today, I came across some gorgeous okra at another store. The seed was planted. I decided to give gumbo another try – but only after bolting my door and drawing the curtains closed.
Here are a few photos of my progress:
Cher, let me tell you, it was worth the wait! Coo-Wee, this dang gumbo is so good, I think I will call it yum-bo! Paul Prudhomme would be proud! Bon Appetite!
Thump, thump, thump, goes the bass. Unintelligible words weave through the techno beat. The music is so loud, I can feel it in my chest. Am I in a nightclub? A party? Sadly, no. I am sitting in my living room with the windows closed tight. It is Sunday night at 10:30 pm, and the music from the Marginal is just warming up. This will most likely go on for hours, as it has the previous four nights. No sleep for me, I’m afraid, so I’ll just write another blog!
Our third weekend in Luanda brought yet another unexpected activity – a safari! Mr. & Mrs. Boss Man invited us to go with them on a two day getaway, which included a boat ride on the beautiful Kwanza River, followed by a safari and overnight in Kissama National Park. We were very excited to see the park and river, but didn’t hold out much hope for the safari. We had been on a “real” safari in South Africa a year ago, and were surrounded by hordes of animals of every kind. After seeing the “Big Five” in such a setting, this was sure to be a letdown. Or at least, that is what we thought…
Angola is not Kenya or Tanzania. Angola is still recovering from a twenty-seven year long civil war, which decimated the country and only ended in 2002. As is the case with many wars, this war resulted from a power vacuum. The Portuguese, who had ruled Angola as a colony for four hundred years, were forced out in the early 1970’s. Their absence created a political vacuum, and rival Angolan factions fought for control of the country. Neither side cared about what the war was doing to the country or the people, they simply wanted to win. Huge ships were sunk off the pristine coastline to disrupt the flow of goods. Millions of people were displaced. Over half a million civilians died. Remember the photos of Princess Diana walking through an area filled with land mines? That was here in Angola.
The people were so desperate during that terrible time, they used the “safari” animals for food and sold off their ivory. Finally, after twenty-seven long years, the leader of one faction died and the other became the victor by default. He has been president ever since. Enough of Angola’s history-in-a-nutshell. Suffice it to say, safari parks are very low on the priority list for this country. However, one program has reintroduced these gorgeous animals into Angola. It was called Operation Noah’s Ark and it began in 2002 in Kissama National Park, only two hours south of Luanda.
Our transport for the trip, a specially outfitted jeep, arrived at our apartment at 6:00 am on Saturday morning, with a Spanish couple (I will call them Mr. & Mrs. Barcelona) already seated inside. The rest of us crawled in and we began our journey south. Along the way, we passed the same chaos we had encountered on our way to the deserted beach the previous weekend, including an impromptu roadside market that brought the traffic to a complete standstill. Finally, we pushed though all of this and reached the open road. Our first stop was a stunning overlook of a coastal area called Miradouro da Lua, or Lunar Landscape. Formed by simple erosion through multicolored layers of rock, the result is nothing short of amazing!
After we had taken plenty of pictures, we hopped back into the jeep and headed to the Kwanza River Lodge for lunch, followed by a boat ride on the river.
Cruising slowly along the river’s edge, we spied monkeys and monitor lizards, as Fish Eagles soared overhead. What a lovely, peaceful start to our day. We had the river to ourselves, with only an occasional fishing boat in sight.
After the boat ride, we piled back into the jeep to drive the remaining hour on the dirt road to Kissama Lodge. Hubby and I were seated in the back row of the jeep, which proved to be like a very bouncy roller coaster at Disneyland. It was exhausting! At times, we bounced so high that Hubby actually hit his head on the roof! We aren’t the quickest learners, but finally discovered that the seat belt is there for a reason. It really helped if we cinched it down tight. One knot on the head is enough for anyone!
Once we reached the lodge, we dropped our bags in our cabins and then headed out on a game drive. The top of the jeep popped up to reveal an opening, which enabled viewing from a standing position while still providing shade. Very nice!
During the drive, we spotted a large group of ten to twelve giraffes, a large herd of wildebeests, two elephants, countless bushbucks, several gorgeous kudus, and a small herd of zebras. There are over 150 elephants in the park, but with only a few jeeps covering the entire three million acre park, it is easy to miss them. We were so impressed with the obvious health of the animals and the progress made in growing their numbers. Here are a few of the animals we saw:
After several hours of near constant game sightings, we headed back to the lodge for a lovely group dinner. Mr. & Mrs. Barcelona proved to be a fascinating couple. Both are biologists and DNA specialists. He is primarily a researcher and she is working with the crime lab in Luanda, schooling them on the use of DNA to solve crimes. Both also venture into remote villages around the globe. Their goal on these trips is to collect DNA samples (typically hair) from the villagers in order to trace their heritage and relationships with nearby villages. What a very interesting life they have!
After dinner, we headed back to our cabins for a shower and a good night’s sleep – neither of which happened! The lodge itself is situated on a gorgeous bluff overlooking the Kwanza River Valley. Although it is a world-class location, the cabins themselves need a lot more work to be comfortable. The electricity switched off and on all night and the water in the shower was ice cold. But given the remote location, difficulty and cost for this kind of facility, we weren’t bothered by the less than five-star accommodations. We just pretended we were camping!
The next morning brought another game drive and more sightings of similar animals. Then it was time to head back to Luanda before lunch. What a delightful weekend, and how wonderful to find a place like this so close to the city! We will definitely be back again, but next time we will bring a flashlight – and some baby wipes!