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.