Sunday, February 19, 2017

The End Of The Road

I settled into my hotel room, which was conveniently right in front of the ocean, and slightly inconveniently halfway between Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, which are about 25 miles apart.  It’s a long story, but when Germany originally took Namibia it had to cede Walvis Bay, the only possible deep water port between Capetown and Benguela, to Britain.  Thus until 1994 Walvis Bay was actually part of South Africa.  And today Swakopmund gets the tourists and Walvis Bay gets the cargo ships.  In between them is mile after mile and uncounted tons of orange-pinkish sand.

I drove down to Walvis Bay.  Truly not much to see.  But at the southern end of town all of a sudden there was this upscale totally First World housing development.  And white people jogging and bicycling and kite surfing.  After many blocks of that the paved road stopped and a dirt road curved along the bay and towards ever more sand.  First I passed a salt operation with brilliant white mini-mountains of salt.  Then brackish ponds and flamingos.  Hundreds and hundreds of flamingos.  Flamingos to the left of me and flamingos to the right.  All walking with their heads upside down in the water.

Okay, that was cool.  At the end of the road I walked across more sand until I reached the ocean.  Then I turned around and walked back.  Then I drove back up to Swakopmund in search of dinner.

Little had I grasped until then just how severely Namibia shuts down after business hours.  And business hours means 6 PM at the latest.  Even the fast food places shut down.  Streets are deserted, both of pedestrians and cars.

The restaurant I was looking for was closed on Mondays.  It was also closed for all of February.  I stopped what looked like an upscale, sophisticated black Swakopmundian and asked where I could find an, ugh, pizza.  He told me, but as his white wife and multiracial kids showed up I took a wild shot and asked if there might be an Indian restaurant in town.  Yes, they both said, there actually was.  So I went there, stuffed myself with an overpriced thali dinner, and returned to my hotel.

I don’t want to keep sounding like an old man, but this trip had been really wearing.  So once again I slept in on Tuesday.  Anyway, for being such a Namibian tourist magnet, Swakopmund really doesn’t have anything to see or do.  The beaches are okay, but in general the water is too cold for swimming.  As I’ve already mentioned, the ‘old’ German buildings are so spruced up that there’s nothing remotely quaint about them.  I don’t fish.  I certainly don’t dune buggy.

There is a small National Aquarium, and I passed some time there looking at fish swim round and round.  Then I found an area of about thirty craft vendors where I was the only customer, and I haggled over a few small items.  (Maureen doesn’t let me buy large ones.)  Then I tried to find the new mall that I had heard about.

Northern Swakopmund is way bigger and even whiter and more upscale than was southern Walvis Bay.  Apparently South African Afrikaans people are frantically building and buying vacation homes here.  And why not?  Sun, virtually no crime, other people who you can speak Afrikaans to.

You see, Namibia may be technically independent, but in actuality it is a wholly owned subsidiary of South Africa.  And no matter how many black presidents smile down from pictures at government offices, it’s the whites (and the Indians and the mixed race and now the Chinese) who actually run everything.  Apartheid definitely no longer exists, but the situation appears to be something that is somewhere between segregation and integration.

What makes it harder to read is that Afrikaans people and German people aren’t especially known for their smiling cuddliness, so it’s hard to tell what they really feel about all the black people who work around and for them.  They’re not all that open and friendly to me, either, but sometimes when I talk to them they turn out to be the kind of person who would give you the shirt off their back.  If you were another white guy, at least.

The black people are almost uniformly polite, almost demure.  And they really enjoy it when I crack jokes.  (Maybe because no Afrikaans person ever smiles, let alone jokes.)  For all I know they all could be secretly seething with anger.  But I don’t think so, because they really seem to be cup half full types.  And they’re not dumb.  They know that it’s a symbiotic relationship, and they know that they are light years ahead of blacks in Zimbabwe or Zambia or Angola.  After all, the great majority of people walking around these fancy First World supermarkets are black.

Speaking of which, I finally found the new mall and walked around it a bit.  Then I drove around the upscale enclave some more, marveling at how much like Southern California this was, only newer, neater, and nicer.  Then I found a branch of the downtown restaurant which was closed for February, had my meal, and drove back home across the sand.

Wednesday morning it was time to leave civilization behind once again and head out towards the great Namibian desert.  First a hundred miles across featureless sand and gravel on a gravel road on which I could easily do 65.  Unfortunately, so could others, and a flying rock chipped my windshield.  And it wasn’t even my fault!  Hopefully Platinum Credit Card will come through for me once again.

The road then turned south, got much slower, and interesting mountainscapes started appearing.  After another hundred miles or so I came upon a gas station/rest stop conglomeration called Solitaire.  As I was filling up I heard an American accent, and it turns out that some American guy owns the place.  He was only the fifth American that I’ve met since I started this trip.  But he was too busy running his business to really hang out and talk.

By now of course the sun was hotter than hell on an empty highway.  And soon I was driving into the darkness for one more day.  Almost all of the lodges out here are super expensive, but there was one in my guide book that was somewhat out of my way but semi-reasonable.  When I pulled in, though, the reception guy sadly informed me that there were no available rooms.  What?  Most places I’ve been I’ve been their only customer.  And then a lady pulls in after me and says that she’s been turned away at six lodges in a row.

I start mentally preparing for a night sitting in my tiny car.  But there was one other place, a Christian retreat some 25 miles back.  Surely a Christian wouldn’t refuse a weary traveler!  When I got there though I discovered that it was no longer a Christian retreat, but now an upscale lodge.  Howsoever, since they were new and off the road, I was now their only prospective customer for the night.  We agreed on $65, which got me a room that really wasn’t very upscale at all.

It didn’t really matter, because I was up at 6 the next morning.  Today was my day for the sand dunes.  You see, that’s why there’s all these tourists and upscale lodges around here: Namibia’s famous thousand foot high pinkish-orange sand dunes.  And if you don’t show up to see them near dawn, the heat of the day will kill you.

However, by the time I drove to the entrance along a long, slow, bumpy road, then paid my fees, then drove another 40 miles to the 2 wheel drive parking lot, and finally hitched a ride with a 4x4 for the last three miles it was 10 AM.  And hot.  I then joined all the other tourists in trudging a half km or so up and over deep sand to get to a place where there were dead trees on a small salt pan surrounded by sand dunes.

So here’s my report on the place: The dunes are all pinkish-orange and fine and dandy if you’re already in the area.  But don’t drop everything and mortgage the house in order to see them.  Like most of the rest of the world, they’re over-hyped.  They didn’t even look 1000 feet tall.  At least I wasn’t idiotic enough to climb one, like all the tour group ants working their way up the spine of Dune 45.

Of course, on my way out Dune 45 was empty.  It was now really dreadfully hot.

But although the National Park wasn’t incredibly astounding, the drive to and fro across the desert was certainly fulfilling.  Empty, empty, empty, with spiny mountains all around and the occasional oryx, with their 4 foot long absolutely straight horns, walking by.  There was a lot of distance to cover, and I was doing it slowly and rattlingly.  I was also kind of wiped out from the heat.  So when I got to the absurdly isolated gas station at Betta I inquired about a room, and, once again being their only customer, was given room number 1.

Now this was as middle of nowhere as nowhere can get.  Not even wifi.  Although in Namibia there is always hot water.  In fact it is scaldingly hot, and you have to do a 1 to 10 ratio with the cold.  I had a little canned food, which was good, because, like I said, that was all she was going to write.  When the sun went down I finally remembered to go outside and look at the stars.  As you may know, the Southern Hemisphere has way more stars than the Northern.  After a long while I ended up figuring out that I was seeing the circumpolar Southern Cross, but it was presently sideways.

Friday I was up and out early.  The dirt roads were really empty now, the sand had turned to ugly light brown, it was all around me, and at one point I was all alone driving uphill through sand like I was trying to get through 6-8 inches of snow.

But I finally hit the paved road again at the non-town of Aus.  A right turn and then 80 miles or so into Luderitz.  At this point all pretense of scenery had vanished, and it was endless ugly sand and gravel.  And when you get to Luderitz you realize that you’ve really reached the end of the road.

How to describe Luderitz?  Let’s start with Death Valley By The Sea.  Then throw in old German buildings, not grand ones, but boxy loaf-of-bread ones from the turn of the last century with a few striking Lutheran churches sticking up here and there.  This is true honest to God bleak desolation, and the reason for its existence is, incredibly ironically enough, a diamond boom from 1900.  This is still a diamond mining area, and travel anywhere for several hundred miles up and down the coast is strictly verbotten.  There are also palm trees.

As I checked into my hotel I was informed that there would be a hurricane this weekend.  Hmm, something else I hadn’t planned for.  Actually, there was a giant typhoon slamming into the Indian Ocean coast of South Africa.  And by the time it reached Namibia there would just be lots of rain.  Except that we wouldn’t get the rain.  Only lots and lots and lots of wind.  It was already constantly 30 mph.

Well, the weekend was just going to be for resting up anyway.  And I had achieved my goal of finding a place which was sufficiently weird ass for me to do it in.  I mean, seriously hard core weird ass.  I was in end of the road heaven.

On weekends in Namibia everything shuts down at 1 PM.  Everything.  No traffic, no pedestrians, the whole town is on lockdown.  But it was all so windy that there was nothing to do but stay in your room anyway.  Fortunately mine looked out over the small bay.  And I really needed the rest.  At around 3 I made an attempt to drive out to the Luderitz peninsula, but the wind was so ridiculous that my car was getting sandblasted.  I gave up, returned to my room, and watched a ridiculously bad Nicholas Cage movie.

By Sunday the wind had died down somewhat, but I was busy resting, writing and trying to organize the gigantic mess that my possessions had become.  At 2 I made another attempt at the peninsula.  No sandblasting this time, so I took the 18 km gravel road to Diaz Point.

This was now desolation cubed.  I had always considered Patagonia to be the bleakest place that I’ve been to, but here I had a contender.  Ugly sand, ugly gravel, ugly rocks, but all jumbled around so that it had an omigod-this-is-bleak air about it.  To top it off, the ocean surrounding it was ugly and grey and choppy.

When I reached the end of the end of the road the wind was at least 50 mph.  I staggered across the short rocks to where up on top of a tall rock was a cross commemorating Bartholomew Diaz’s stop here in 1488.  It was quite the poetic evocation to imagine some Portuguese guy in a 15th Century boat trying to find his way around Africa and ending up here.

It was also a fitting end to my own journey.  And although I am slightly annoyed that no one else knows or cares how fiendishly difficult this was to plan and execute, that’s okay.  I know and I care.  Because this was a capstone to all the other little trips that I’ve taken, starting with that overland passage to India in 1970.  I’ve pretty much done it all now.  And I can retire.

Except of course if Libya miraculously stabilizes.  And then there’s that circumnavigation of Australia.  And then…  Nah.  If I’m stampeded by a herd of oryx tomorrow I’m not going to regret that I never made it to the Maldive Islands.

200 is plenty enough.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

That's Swakopmund With a 'K',a 'P', and a 'Mund'

Promised lands aren't always what they're cracked up to be.  My fascination with Namibia started out in 2003, when I nibbled its southernmost part.  There the sky was so electric blue that the whole place seemed way psychedelic.

Here in the far north the situation was much more prosaic.  The land was flat and scrubby, though now green because of the rains.  Still nothing picturesque.  And went I went off of the paved road to head towards Etosha National Park the rains meant that there were a lot of puddles to splash through.

Ah, Etosha!  Upscale tourist magnet land of innumerable elephants and rhinos.  Now I had been forewarned that there wouldn't be many large animals during the rainy season, but still...  And when I saw a few giraffes shortly after I had entered the gates I was certainly expecting to see something more.

But that, except for some ostriches and the occasional zebra or impala antelope, was about it.  And looking around me as I continued into the park it was hard to believe that even they could survive here.  Because Etosha is mainly a big, flat, ugly salt pan with hardly anything growing on it.  And the heat and humidity were something else.  As were the ruts in the roads.  Especially the side ones that I kept taking in vain hopes of seeing something.

This took most of the day, until I reached the main 'rest camp'.  Here I paid way too much for a substandard room and made one more fruitless drive before the sun went down and they locked us in for the night.  At 8 I walked over to the famous watering hole, where supposedly in the dry season thirsty animals tramp many miles to all crowd around and drink.  Nothing tonight.  I waited patiently for an hour, and as with most of life, my patience was rewarded with more nothing.  I started becoming suspicious that Etosha is just a scam perpetuated on upscale tourists, who then are too embarrassed to report back that they've been had.  But everyone keeps assuring me that, yes, in the dry season this place is just chockablock with critters.

Well, I still don't know what all those large mammals could possibly subsist on around here, wet season or dry.  But if I were one of them, and I had a nice cubbyhole somewhere, I certainly wouldn't trudge all the way over here if there were any puddles nearby.

Speaking of puddles, it turned out that the silt from the salt pan creates the thickest, scaliest, whitishist mud imaginable.  So now my nice little rentacar looked like a godawful mess.

The next morning I made one more attempt at a 'game drive', gave up, and headed out of the park and south for around 80 miles.  Here, along with the first small hills, was the clean, prosperous little town of Outjo, with significantly more whites than Ondangwa and significantly more prosperity.  I whiled around a bit and also finally found a Namibia road map.  Then I headed west.

It soon got much drier and started looking quite a bit like our Southwest.  About 50 miles along I turned left onto a gravel road.  My memory of Namibian gravel roads from 2003 is that they were really good and that everyone drove really fast on them.  I wasn't going that fast, but I made the mistake of hitting the brakes whilst rounding a curve and for a few heart pounding moments it was like I was on ice, totally out of control.  After that was over I realized that at my age I probably shouldn't be having heart pounding moments at the end of nowhere.

I was searching for the famous 'rock finger' a 500 foot high slender pinnacle all alone by itself, like you might see in southern Utah.  It was nice and all, and the surrounding cliffs in the distance were like you see in New Mexico, but what was really interesting was that, as is the case all over Namibia, somebody had built a tourist lodge all the way in the middle of this emptiness.  And when I drove up the small hill to check it out the view would have made Arizona Highways proud.  But it was 100 degrees outside, so I didn't stick around.

Back to the main road, and at 85 miles due west of Outjo was the town of Khorixas.  On the map the two appear to be the same size, but now I was in the middle of Damaraland, the poorest area of Namibia, and this 'town' was scarcely a block long.  It did have a semi-reasonably priced lodge, although said lodge had no a/c.  Of course, at this point I had little choice in the matter.

Khorixas looked like the kind of place that the rains never came to, but this afternoon happened to be the day when they actually did.  You see, although Ondangwa and Etosha were giant puddles now, it takes forever for the clouds to make it this far west.  At the 'needle' lodge I saw a bolt of lightning against a blue sky.  Here the thunder was rolling and the clouds were darkening.  It finally started raining lightly around 6.

Although I'm stressing my mind and body a lot less than on previous trips, it's still getting to be too much.  So the next morning I decided to stay here another night.  After all, it was a suitably bizarre lodge and town.  And my only activity would be driving 50-60 miles to some world famous rock paintings and then coming back.

First, I hadn't realized that the pavement stopped at the town's western edge.  Also that, this being the poorest part of Namibia AND the rainy season, the roads would be in really bad shape.  So I poked along at less than 40 mph until I got to the turnoff, then less than 30 mph until I got to the World Heritage Site.

I paid my money and was assigned my guide.  I agreed on the short tour, which consisted of walking along a flat dirt track for about half a kilometer in 98 degree heat with no shade, then scrambling up some rocks, then being shown two largish flat rocks on which someone had drawn elephants and giraffes the the like up to 6000 years ago, then turning around and walking back.

The map showed another way back to Khorixas, and I never like to retrace steps, so...  To make a long drive short, I jounced horribly along at 20 mph for the next several hours in my teeny little rentacar.  And I realized why old people had always bought giant Buicks and Lincolns.  Not because they were conspicuous consumers, but because their tired bones demanded that they do it.

For no apparent reason on Sunday morning I felt refreshed and ready to tackle the long road ahead of me.  Due west on a gravel road across a Mohave Desert type landscape until I hit the ocean.  Off I went, occasionally being able to do 45.

I had certainly been thwarted in my elephant quest, but here in the middle of the friggin' desert I came upon a herd of 11 desert giraffes.  That's right, in the desert.  So that they have to bend all the way down in order to eat anything.  Which sort of defeats the whole purpose of being a giraffe.  But they were there, right by the road.  And I saw them and hung out with them.

Then nothing much for the next hundred miles or so.  I got to the gate of the Skeleton Coast National Park, got a permit to drive through, and then drove down the long incline towards the Atlantic Ocean.
'Skeleton Coast' is certainly evocative, and it has the reputation for being one of the bleakest spots on Earth.  But I wouldn't call it bleak, because there's a certain beauty implied in 'bleak'.  This is just kind of weird and ugly, which you wouldn't expect from being right next to the ocean.  But the ocean itself is cold, and except for morning fogs no real moisture is ever deposited here.  So it is mostly flat gravel plains.

I turned north and drove for about 60 miles to the outpost of Terrace Bay.  This is a defunct mining camp which has been turned into a small fisherman's 'resort', though that is really stretching the word.  And I counted exactly one vehicle among the 30 isolated cabins.  But the drive up and back featured dunes, mountains in the background, and often the ocean on the other side.

When I returned to the 'T', however, and continued south, all interesting features immediately disappeared.  Just flat ugly gravel all around me.  Even the ocean was gone.  And it was that way until I got to the southern park gate, had them check my permit, and re-entered normal Namibia.

Now I was in a hurry, though, because there was a seal reserve which closed at 5, and it was already past 4.  Not properly signed, it took me a while to find it, and when I went in to pay for my entrance it was 4:45.  I joked with the girl about letting me stay some extra minutes, but African officials, like TSA workers, don't cotton to joking.  Anyway I drove up to where the seals were.

It is claimed that the reserve has 100,000 seals.  I didn't count that many, but there were definitely thousands.  And each was a female with a three month old black pup.  All extremely cute.  Most of them were lolling around, a few occasionally growled and snapped at each other.  Out at the water's edge hundreds of them were constantly going in and coming out.  Pups were going in all on their own.  Most of the seaks waddled away when you got close, but one or two of them actually came at me and were aggressive.  So I had to get aggressive right back.

After around fifteen minutes a young British couple drove up for their second look-see of the day and we got to talking.  One thing led to another and soon it was 6:15.  Well, no one had ever come and told us to leave.  And they wouldn't lock the gate on us, would they?

They did.  So the Brits had to go get the lady, who came back and yelled at me for staying too long.  I then had to bribe her with a nice cake that I had.  But the gate was duly opened and I was on my way.

Hettie's Bay was another 40 miles, and was a nice, small fishing/tourist town.  Lots of fishermen at the campground but no one else but me at the only hotel in town.  Here was also the first gas station in 600 kilometers.  Which is how far I had driven today.

Monday morning it was 50 miles further into Swakopmund, Namibia's big, giant holiday resort. Except that it was the off, off season.  And 'big' and 'giant' are all relative, considering that it was Namibia.  Also, Namibia started off being yet another German colony, only this time they really meant to settle the place.  So Swakopmund is also known for its great old German buildings.  And indeed there are some incredibly well kept German Victorian structures, with their gables and turrets and such.

But that's the problem.  Everything about Swakopmund is so clean and neat and well kept up that at best it is like a vaguely German themed theme park.  Especially if, like me, you've just been spending weeks in the 'real' Africa.  The one that's dirty and poor and where not much of anything is kept up.

Oh well, I'm sure that I can adjust.  Right now though I just need to find a place to lay my increasingly weary head.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Through Angola To The Promised Land

The nice boutique hotel arranged for a driver to take me the ten miles or so to the Macon bus terminal towards the south end of the city.  I got there just before 9 AM for the 9:30 bus to Benguela.  Now usually in the Third World you just walk up to the ticket window, buy a ticket, and hop on the bus. However, here it was a little different.

I don't know if it was because of the big Angola Martyr's Day weekend or not, but there was a line of Angolans literally 65 people long all being served by one window.  Let's see, at 2 or 3 minutes a person that's...  I asked a big line herder guy when the next bus for Benguela was, and he said 4 o'clock.  That means I wouldn't get there until 2 in the morning.  Hmm.

This was obviously a situation which didn't call for fair play.  I shamelessly used my white person privilege, looked as plaintive and naive as possible, and said to the line herder guy, 'Ticket?? Bilheto??'  He pushed a hole through the line and took me to another window where no one was standing.  There a guy said that the next bus was at 10:30.  Whew!  I probably got the last ticket for it.

What's more, no one in Angola seems to want to sit in the front, so I got the first seat, the one with a totally unobstructed tourist view.  At first there was just mile after mile of Luanda outskirts.  Though it certainly wasn't fancy, many of the buildings were newish and well constructed.  And even the poor neighborhoods consisted of small concrete block dwellings, nothing as nearly as dilapidated or slummy as some of the places I've been.  Off to the right was the Atlantic Ocean.

After we got to open land, it was clear that the tropical foliage I had been seeing since Lagos was gone, and in its place was what the vast majority of Africa is: Dull brown dirt covered by various varieties of scrub.  Not altogether unpleasant but not altogether pleasant either.  And for the next ten hours we traversed it, often slowing down to 1 km per hour or so in order to navigate all the vicious potholes.  Where was that Chinese road crew when you needed it?

The city of Lobito was about 20 miles north of Benguela, and from that point on the driver seemed to stop every few hundred meters for the laborious process of disgorging a passenger and their baggage.  Finally we made it to the Macon terminal in downtown Benguela.  Here a cadged a cell phone call from a fellow passenger, and a few minutes later Nancy pulled up to take me to her place.

So how did Nancy, a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey, end up owning a guest house and an English language school in Benguela.  Well, it started out with some NGO work 23 years ago.  And the language school part was easy, since she is probably the only native English speaker for a 200 mile radius.  As for me, I was grateful both for the guest house part and the fact that I had found out about her in the first place.

Sunday was a day off.  So I slept in, and then took a ten minute walk down to the city beach.  It's not the most amazing beach in the world, but it's pleasant enough, with palms and a simple esplanade and all.  And Angolans were relaxing and enjoying themselves and such.  I walked to the end, turned around, and went back to Nancy's.

In the mid afternoon I walked downtown to find a--guess what!--pizza to eat.  Late afternoon Nancy drove me to the Macon place where I bought a ticket for tomorrow.  We then went back, meditated together for an hour, and that pretty much was Sunday.

There were no major bus surprises Monday morning, and we took off reasonably on time.  In Nigeria and Cameroon it was the dry season, but here it was the wet one.  And as we proceeded South things got greener and greener.  Hills and small mountains started appearing, and we drove steadily uphill, which meant more precipitation and greenery.  At some points the scrub actually became scrubforest.

For the first time on my trip I actually saw planted fields, mostly of corn.  And very occasionally I would see conical dwellings with thatched roofs.  (Most of the traditional Africa which you may think exists has been replaced long, long ago by sturdier, though much drabber, concrete blocks.)

After six and a half hours or so of mostly emptiness we reached the city of Lubango.  Here, however, the small Macon terminal was not in the center of town, but actually around three miles past that.  Never to mind.  I bought my ticket for tomorrow, lugged my stuff to the other side of the road, stopped a couple of the stuff-as-many-people-as-you-can minibuses which seem to ply the roads of virtually every non-rich country in the world, and soon found one which new where the 'Novo Hotel' was.

Not only that, but they went out of their way to take me right to its door.  Nowadays virtually every hotel room in the world, no matter how scruffy, has hot water, a small fridge, and wifi.  In this one, true to Africa, the bathroom fixtures were iffy and the wifi wasn't working, but, hey, it was only for one night.

Now to find a pizza.  (Seriously, there's nothing else to eat.)  A half mile walk away was the Millennium Shopping Center, which would turn out to be an interesting strange little mall.  On the way there I got to notice that here in the middle of nowhere, as with the rest of Angola, were a number of Portuguese white people who looked like that had lived there their entire lives.  They  
probably had.  Except perhaps during the 20 year long civil war.  And Nancy pointed out that everyone who can, Portuguese, Chinese, whoever, is getting out now that the oil price and the currency have collapsed.

Speaking of the Chinese...  Angola is still poor, but apparently the changes in the last 5 or 10 years have been amazing.  And like Ethiopia and most of the rest of Africa, it is all down to Chinese money and Chinese construction.  They have accomplished far, far more in 10 years than 50 years of foreign aid from the West did.  After all, what we did was have endless committee meetings to make sure that all of the proposed bathrooms were transgender, and then all the money ended up in the pockets of the ruling elite anyway.  The Chinese make loans repayable in oil and the like, then just send their own guys over to do the work.  As with China itself, the results are sometimes bad, but way more often amazing.

Another interesting thing to note is that, whereas in most African countries the locals speak to each other in whatever local language they use, somehow the Portuguese got everyone in Angola to speak Portuguese all the time, even to each other.  Also, I keep mentioning how nice most Africans are. The Angolans, however, deserve special mention for their low key decency.

Back to the travelogue, though.  My 5 day transit visa meant that I had to be out of the country on Tuesday or else I would have to pay a $150 fine.  Also, the border would close at 6 PM.  This meant that there wasn't much room for bus malfunctions or the like.

My first problem that morning was trying to remember which of the downtown streets was the one that continued out of town.  I walked for about ten minutes and was somewhat confused, but the first minibus which stopped said that they were going past Macon.  I squeezed in and soon we were there.

This bus left exactly on time.  And for the next six and a half hours we passed a topography that had flattened out again and gotten hotter and much more humid.  And back to mostly deserted scrub. It being the rainy season, though, the scrub was all green, and I realized that I had always previously seen scrub Africa in the dry season.  Kind of like California hills all of a sudden get pretty after it rains.  The bulbous baobob trees especially metamorphisized from weird ghostly apparitions into actual living things.

By 3 we were in Santa Clara, the end of the line.  Here I was surrounded by a bunch of piranha boys wanting to change money and motorbike me to the border.  I finally chose one and we drove around 500 meters or so.  Then a short wait to get stamped out of Angola, a medium walk through no man's land, an easy entry into Namibia, and there I was.  At the end of the hard part of the exercise.

It really wasn't the hardest traveling that I've done.  Much of the real work was in the figuring out how to do it.  But it was still wearing, especially in the heat and at my advanced age.  Here, however, was the Promised Land.  Water you can drink!  ATMs that work!  You can use your credit card!

Namibia is by no means First World.  But it was clearly several big steps ahead of where I had just been for the past three weeks or so.  It was also cheap: $3 for the 35 mile share taxi ride from the border to the first major town, Ondangwa.

There my modern motel had all the conveniences, although strangely no fridge.  But their restaurant had vegetarian lasagna and no alcohol beer.  I slept in again.  And really needed to.  Back in the day I could do 12 hour bus rides for day after day.  But that was back in the day.

Wednesday at 2 I took a cab out to the airport and picked up my rental car.  Oh boy.  Now things were really uptown.  I drove around Ondangwa to check it out some more.  A KFC.  A Namibian fast food chain, Hungry Lion.  (Although they, too, only serve chicken.  With a name like that shouldn't they be serving zebra or something?)  Several home depot-ish places.  Obviously, even here at the poor edge of the country, there was enough money going around to support more retail businesses than even capital cities in the rest of Africa.

I stopped at a relatively large shopping center.  All the store locations were occupied and commerce seemed to be buzzing.  In the middle was an actual, too good to be true, real supermarket.  This Shoprite had everything.  Cheese doodles! Ginger beer! Apple strudel!  On the healthier side there were cans of beans and corn, gouda cheese, and freshly baked whole wheat bread.  I greedily stocked up on anything that looked even remotely tasty.

I then went in search of a road map, only to find that the only store in town that sold them was closed.  What?  It's only 4:10.  'No, sir, it is 5:10.  Namibia is an hour later than Angola.'  Oops.  Oh well.  It opens at 8 in the morning.

And then it's off to Etosha National Park.  In search of elephants and rhinos and lions and vultures.


Friday, February 03, 2017

Angola At 200

When I got to Finland in 2013 I had reached #200 on the Century Travel Club country list.  But some of their 'countries' are rather suspect.  So on my improved approved personal list Angola is that magic number.  Maybe I can rest now.

Although my mind continues to be blown.  For instance, it is difficult to describe how bedraggled Sao Tome's capital of Sao Tome is.  It would have to up its game by about five notches just to reach ramshackle.  About one kilometer from end to end, authorities like the Ministry of Health are in small clapboard houses.  Most buildings downtown have tin roofs and are in various stages of complete collapse.  The only tourist sights are the world's smallest fort, originally built in around 1500, and a 'cathedral' started around the same time that was all locked up.  There seems to be only one cafe in the entire country, and the food that they serve isn't that good.

Which gives me an opportunity to vent a little about guide books.  Because I know that there has to be an inherent puffery that's involved with them; How many copies are you going to sell if you're honest and admit that a place is boring or crappy?  But these Bradt guides take the fantasy way too far.  For example, the one on Sao Tome lists a whole bunch of restaurants, none of which actually exist.  The 'beaches' it raves about are tiny little strips of pebbly sand or mud with no way to get to them.  The cultural center is a sad little broken warehouse with a few amateurish paintings on the wall.

Which isn't to say anything bad about the Sao Tomean people.  Because they were almost without exception really, really nice.  And helpful.  It's not their fault that their island is lacking in tourist zazz.

And I just wanted to rest up anyway.  What's more, my guesthouse room was perfectly fine for that.   So on Tuesday, besides taking my papers back to the Angola consulate and scoping out a place to do my laundry, that's all I did.  Wednesday was a bit more problematic, since it started out with a downpour, and I had to be back at the consulate at 11 for my visa.  But it let up enough to do that, and the rain cooled everything down enough for me to finally have a little pep in my step.  So I did one final walkthrough of the town, bought some bread and cheese and mango nectar, picked up my laundry, carried all of that and an umbrella on the back of a motorbike, and went back to my room for my little picnic.

Speaking of laundry, almost all of my clothes had required cleaning, and they came to just under seven pounds.  My full pack is 37 pounds.  You figure that one out.

Thursday was checkout time, but my flight didn't leave until the evening.  I had finessed that little problem by renting a car for the day.  Now I would see the rest of Sao Tome!

Turned out that there wasn't all that much more to see.  There's a winding hilly road for about 65 km down the east coast which was reasonably well paved until near the end.  Mostly jungle, with a few volcanic knobs and spires sticking up.  Also several poor, nothing towns.  The actual volcano on which the island is based is always in the clouds.  Returning, I drove uphill to another town, Trinidade, but after that the roads were deteriorated and unsigned, so I played it safe and drove back downhill to Sao Tome town.  Then west for about 25 km on a thoroughly potholed road until I hit the 'beach' at the west coast.  I tried to take a short siesta with the jeepney window open, but was immediately attacked by sand fleas.. That was about it, and then back to the airport.

I was sitting on the Angolan plane at 7:10 while they finished the life raft speech thinking about how, after all the screw ups in America, all my obscure flights had actually existed and been on time.  Then the plane shut down.  About fifty minutes later they announced that this was because one of the engines wasn't working.  Ten minutes later, though, all of a sudden it was.  And we took off at 8:15, exactly one hour late.

Which usually wouldn't be the worst turn of affairs.  But the Luanda airport had been described as the worst place in the world, especially late at night.  And I had gone to a lot of trouble to schedule a special pick up.  What if the guy goes home and I'm left at the mercy of vicious Angolan hoodlums? After all, Luanda doesn't even have taxis, just sleazy private cars which charge you $50 to drive a block.

Turns out that, as with Lagos, it's all a ridiculous lie.  Immigration was quick and efficient, my bag plopped out a minute after that, everyone at Customs let everyone walk right by them.  And when I got out of the building there were 3 or 4 nice shiny new taxis waiting.

Although my driver wasn't.  So one of the touts used his mobile phone and called the hotel, which said that the driver would be there in twenty minutes.  It was actually less than ten.  As it happened, the hotel had previously checked the internet, and it had looked like the Sao Tome flight had been cancelled because of that engine problem.

Which gives me a chance to vent on something else: Africa's supposed dangerousness.  People who hear about my trip are always worried to death about potential violence.  And since all they've ever been exposed to is gangster rap and horrific news stories, one can understand why they would freak about black people in the wild.  The reality, however, (as hard as it may be for you to believe) is exactly the opposite.  Africans are probably the least violent people in the world.  I've certainly never had an angry word or action directed at me as an individual or as a white person.  And I've seen very few instances of Africans acting that way towards each other, either.

In fact, once you realize this, how slavery came about becomes clearer.  Because it turns out that the meek don't inherit the Earth.  Instead they are the ones who are most easily enslaved.

With that cheery thought in mind, let's return to our Luanda travelogue.  Because another mind blowing experience was how shiny and new everything seemed on our midnight drive in from the airport.  Yes, it was the business district, but it was much cleaner than Lagos, even almost European seeming.

Past the business district  and protecting the harbor is a long sandspit of a former island called, appropriately enough, the Isla. Halfway along this was my hotel, which was kind of like one of those boutique hotels with a raised bowl bathroom sink and wood floors and all.  I was paying (for me) top dollar, but the appointments were worth it.

I would have been paying much topper dollar a couple of years ago, because then Angola was perhaps the most expensive country in the world.  But, like Nigeria, the collapse of oil prices (Yea Fracking!) has collapsed the currency.  So now it's still not cheap, but at least it's reasonably reasonable.

Friday morning I ate the nice boutique hotel breakfast, arranged for a ride to the bus terminal for the next morning, and set out for a walk along the beach.  Not exactly the nicest beach in the world, but still pleasant enough.  Also, although hot, the climate wasn't nearly as suffocatingly tropical, so walking was much easier.  After a while, though, I flagged down a minibus and paid the 25 cent fare to go back to the business district.

I had the driver stop somewhere in the middle of it and I lucked out, for this is where the money changing ladies hung out.  Last year the kwanza was down to 550-600 to the dollar, but it had strengthened recently.  The hotel was changing at 340, but the ladies had the 'real' rate of 430.  Which was great since I could pay my bill in kwanzas.  I changed $300 and stuffed a giant wad of kwanzas into my backpack.

Then a walk around the business district, a really tasteless pizza to eat, a stroll along a nice esplanade area on the inner bay, a choice find of a wide spot on the road where a minibus could pull over, and a ride back to the hotel.

And that was my stay in Luanda.