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.