Tuesday, October 30, 2007

South African Airlines is out to get me

South African Airlines is out to get me

I never considered myself to be an unlucky or lucky person- just normal luck, I guess. Lately though, the tide has turned for the worse. Last week during my return trip to Angola, I had possibly the worst luck I could have had.

My flight from Houston to Washington left late. I arrived with only twenty minutes to make my connecting flight to Johannesburg. I ran up to the gate with my boarding pass and they directed me to the ticket counter to get my passport verified once again. After anxiously waiting in line, I was finally called over to the agent, who promptly ignored me. As the people behind me in line sped past, I tried to get the woman’s attention. I like to think that I am a polite person, but perhaps I asked, “Excuse me, ma’am?” in a nasty tone because she responded, “You need to wait.” She was having a conversation with her supervisor, and all I could hear was, “…before we close the gate… passengers need to get off… unload bags… no more passengers on the plane.” What?!

Apparently, the plane was too heavy. They weren’t letting any more people on the plane- boarding pass/ticket or not- until they could resolve the weight issue. They found 12 suckers- sorry, I mean, volunteers- to give up their seats for a free ticket. (Having done this once before I know it is more of a hassle than it is worth.) As I finally boarded, they assured us that if we were on the plane, so were our bags, and we were, in fact, NOT going to crash into the Atlantic. Great!

We then proceeded to sit on the tarmac for an hour. No explanation, other than that we were experiencing some delays. We finally take off, and the 15 hour journey began. I was able to sleep a bit, which was nice. As we prepared to land, I looked at the “Local Time at Arrival” on the screen: 1520. Whoops! My flight to Luanda was scheduled to leave at 1550. I prepared myself for the worst.

As I ran to the international transit check-in lounge, I could see the TAAG screen on the monitor. Filled with hope, I ran up to the counter and presented my ticket. As I did, the TAAG logo changed to an Olympic Airways flight to Athens logo. The guy looked at me as if I were crazy and said, “That flight is already in the air.”

Somehow still calm, I checked in with the South African Airways people. The guy looked at my ticket and said, “We are not responsible for putting you up in a hotel because this is an illegal booking. There is only one hour for an international connection. Whoever did this is responsible.” With immense satisfaction, I showed him the address of the South African Airways office in Ft. Lauderdale that issued me the ticket.

They put me up in an acceptable hotel that was at one point nice, but by the time I got to it, it had passed its prime. By now, I realized just how stinky I was going to be the next day, because I had no change of clothes. Luckily I had saved the travel toothbrush from SAA, so I could at least brush my teeth.

As I checked in the next morning, the ticket agent asked about my bags. He took my claim tickets and said, “Okay, they’ll be fine.” Excellent! I don’t know if my body knew something before I did, but I began to feel ill and immediately ran to the bathroom, where I puked. In the end, I managed to get on the flight alright, feeling better.

Ah, the joy of arrival in Luanda. Always a genius, the Angolan government has decided to change the way you get your passport stamped. Unlike most other countries in the world, Angola no longer distributed custom forms on the plane for you to fill out with plenty of time. No, no! You must first get in line to show your proof of yellow fever shot to the agent in the airport- THEN get your customs form- THEN fill it out- THEN get in line for the immigration control. Of course there is only one agent with papers for the entire plane and crew, so you can imagine how long it must take.

I got through immigration with no problems, which was surprising. I got the little cart of my three bags- I paid US$180 extra in the US to have a third bag checked- and was relieved to be back in Angola and on my way home.

My relief was short-lived, for not long after I got to the baggage area did the handler com out yelling, “Acabou! Não tem mais! It’s over! No More!” As in, unloading of the flight’s baggage has finished and there are no more suitcases. Wonderful. I go to the claim line to fill out my form of missing baggage.

I got to the agent and he asked what happened. I said, “Perderam a bagagem. My luggage is lost.” He responded in a typical Angolan way: “Não, não se perdeu. Só que não veio. It’s not lost. It just didn’t come.” Of course he could give me no guarantees of when it would come or with which airline, so I was out of luck.

Trying to be positive, I thought, “Well at least I don’t have to check bag for my flight back to Lobito.” I went outside to meet the driver, and he said, “Hurry! The flight is supposed to leave in an hour! Check-in’s already closed!” I had nasty flashbacks to the last time this happened, but I just tried not to focus too much on the nice shower and change of clothes that was waiting for me.

Since I didn’t have any bags, they let me through without much complaint. The flight was 2 hours late, but finally at 1700 they called us for boarding and we got out onto the tarmac. We boarded the plane and started to move- about 100 meters. Then a flight attendant comes on the speaker and says, “O vôo está cancelado. The flight is canceled.” A minor uprising ensued, and several angry passengers demanded to know what was going on. We weren’t given an explanation, of course; just that it was canceled and we had to be at the airport the next morning at 5:30.

By then I was ready to burn my clothes. It was Thursday night and I had been wearing them since Tuesday. I had no deodorant, no conditioner, no other toiletries, nothing to sleep in. I was not happy. However, I was too tired and jet-lagged to really care, and at out guest house I fell asleep at 6:45 and slept until 5 the next morning.

From there, I didn’t have any more problems. My luggage has still not appeared. I don’t have any of the things I bought in the US- clothes, shoes, presents, medicines, toiletries, contact lenses, DVDs, etc- and the longer it takes, the less hope I have of seeing them. This happens a lot- I’m surprised it’s the first time it’s happened to me. I bought locks and put them on everything, but I’m sure the airport workers are smart enough to get around them.

I’ve not heard any info on where they could be. I suspect they didn’t make it on the flight I was on to Johannesburg, due to the weight issue and my delayed flight from Houston. However, SAA in the US can’t give my parents any information, and conveniently, the office in Luanda doesn’t have a phone.

Welcome back to Angola.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Angola in the Americas

Here is an interesting article about the only known Spanish-based creole language, Palenquero, from Colombia. Much of the structure has origin from the Congo River basin area.
Palenquero was strongly influenced by the Kikongo language of Congo and Angola, and by Portuguese, the language of traders who brought African slaves to Cartagena in the 17th century. Kikongo-derived words like ngombe (cattle) and ngubá (peanut) remain in use here today.
Kikongo is spoken in northern Angola, whereas in the Benguela area people speak Umbundu. However, there are similarities. For example, the Umbundu word for peanut is ginguba, similar to the Kikongo ngubá mentioned above.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Growth and Poverty

Luanda, from New York Times article

There's an interesting article in today's New York Times. In spite of increased spending on reconstruction and economic growth, many Angolans still live on less than $2 a day. There's nothing new or shocking in the article and they cover all the basics: Chinese, corruption, bad roads, poverty, and Western oil executives who shy away from the press because they are afraid of the government. There's a nice slideshow with the article. My favorite picture is the one above, which nicely shows the contrast of utter ruin and the oil boom.

Dos Santos visits Castro

President Dos Santos visit Fidel in Havana. Photo from SaFP.com

Well, I'm still stuck in the US, so I'm out of the Angolan news loop. I just saw this article, dated Sept. 23:
HAVANA, Sep 23 (AP): Cuba published a photo Sunday of a standing, smiling Fidel
Castro looking heavier but still gaunt as he met Angola's president, the first
head of state to see the ailing 81-year-old since June.

I was browsing in a Barnes & Noble, waiting for a friend and came across The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit and Desire, by Tom Zoellner. My friend was late, so I got through most of the chapter on Angola. I can't vouch for the whole book, but the chapter on Angola was pretty interesting. Zoellner talks about the role of the Cuban military in aiding the MPLA fight off UNITA. I admit I'm hazy on the specifics, so look for the book for the actual details, but protecting foreign-held oil sites was a big priority for the government, since oil revenue funded (and still funds) most government expenditures.

So how best to put to use the communist, Cuban military? Why, protecting capitalist yanqui oil companies! Yes, while in Angola the Cuban miltary was sent to protect the likes of Chevron and Texaco. Oh, the irony...

There are still lots of Cubans in Angola. Apparently, it's fairly easy for Cubans to get a visa to Angola, so many have immigrated to Angola. I know of at least 15 Cubans in Lobito who have done this, 3 of which are doctors. COnversely, Cuba is a popular destination for Angolans to attend university. A nice young female doctor whom I saw for my stomach trouble had done her medical degree there. She asked me about my last name and if by any chance I was related to Haydee Santamaria, hero of the Cuban revolution.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Disco will save us all

Boney M pic from http://www.musiclange.dk/

One of the things I like best about living in other countries is seeing which pop songs are popular and why. In Angola, its Akon and Beyonce. In Honduras it was Christina Aguilera song from "Moulin Rouge" and Journey.
When I lived in Chile, I would hear this one song, "Rivers of Babylon" by Boney M OVER and OVER again. (What would we do without YouTube? Here's a video.) It's a truly infectious song- and very cheesy. But I've never heard it outside of Chile. The first time I heard it, I asked a friend who sang it. He looked at me like I was crazy and said, "Don't you know Boney M?!" He was intent on proving how little I knew and proceeded to stop 5 random people on the street if they knew who sang "Rivers of Babylon." Every single person he stoped knew the answer.
I love listening to that song because it reminds me of the time I spent in Chile, some of best times of my life. Whenever this song came on- in the discoteca or in a private party- the place would erupt. Even my Chilean pololo (boyfriend), who singlehandedly put to rest the myth that all Latin men are good dancers, would jump up and bop along.
Georgia has drafted in 1970s disco icons Boney M in its battle to regain control over the tiny separatist region of South Ossetia. Our correspondent says the Georgian authorities want to show the South Ossetian separatists that life would be better and more fun if they returned to government control.
I think they're on to something...

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Bed Nets to Fight Malaria

Here is an interesting article from the New York Times about the debate on free vs. social-marketed bed nets used to fight malaria. The article does a good job of laying out the two sides.

Basically, the social marketing camp says if you market bed nets as a branded good and charge a small, nomial price, beneficiaries will take better care of them, use them as directed, and NOT get malaria. I saw this in Honduras, although not with bed nets. In the market, vendors would sell USAID vegetable oil in big cans labeled USAID: GIFT OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE. Everyone wanted to buy this oil, claiming that it was better because it was from the US- never mind that it was likely low-quality surplus oil that would never be sold in the US! The point is that people were willing to pay more for something basic they judged to be of superior quality.

The free distribution camp points out that those who are the most adversly affected by malaria are the poorest of the poor. Is it fair to make a poor mother choose between buying food or a bed net? The article bring up a point I hadn't considered: in a small village, unless everyone uses a bed net, the mosquito will simply move from the netted-bed to the next available unnetted-bed.

I'm not sure which side I am on. I lean towards the social-marketing side, just because of what I saw in Honduras. Those same cans of vegetable oil distributed by USAID were given free of charge to people. Rather than use them for their own consumption, recipients would just go the the market and make a buck!

I'm happy to say that I haven't had malaria yet, in spite of the fact that I don't take any medication. I do, however, use a bed net!

This works for me, at least!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Luanda - Beijing on TAAG

Starting October 23, TAAG (the infamous national airline of Angola) will start a Luanda-Beijing route. (Link to article in Portuguese.) Unfortunately it's just a charter flight, but it's indicative of the growing relationship between China and Angola. According to my sources (sources = random people in my office prone to gossiping), it's so they can ship in more Chinese prisoners to build the railroad! (Gotta love China rumors.)

TAAG is also increasing their flights to Addis Abba and Dubai. No word on the Luanda-Houston route.

Monday, October 08, 2007

More delays...

As predicted, I have had to extend my stay in the U.S. It's due to a combination of factors, really, but mostly due to health reasons. One of the important things I needed to do at home was get my health checked out. I won't go into details because it's not a topic for polite conversation, but something didn't quite check out and I had to go in for minor surgery last Friday. No big deal- everything went well and I am on my way to a full recovery. However, this means that I have to stick around a little longer for follow-ups and recovery.

Tomorrow, Oct. 9, was my scheduled departure date. Even without the surgery I would not have been able to leave, because I just got my passport about 1/2 hour ago! I now have an extra two weeks to begin the work visa process. Hopefully it will go smoothly. I have complete faith in the Houston consular office, since they were very efficient last year when I applied for my visto ordinario.

The good news about all of this is that I get to go to my friends' wedding in New Orleans! I'll be leaving a few days afterwards, on the 23rd. I must say, I am anxious to get back to Angola- especially to my cat, Willie, who has been so lonely all this time! Six weeks is a big chunk of time to be at home, a little too long to be hanging out on my parents' couch catching up on TV. But I am glad that I am able to get well in the comfort of the US!

Monday, October 01, 2007

It's not just Angola...

My fears that my passport renewal would not go smoothly came true, but not for the reason I thought! Just take a look at the path my DHL package (containing my passport!) took in order to get to Luanda:

9/19: Package departs NYC
9/25: Packages departs for London (meaning that it sat in NYC for SIX DAYS)
9/26: The most traveled package in history goes to the following places: Brussels, Belgium; Lagos, Nigeria; Libreville, Gabon
9/27: Package arrives in Kinshasa, DRC and goes BY BOAT to Brazzaville, Congo
9/30: Package finally arrives in Luanda and is delivered on 10/1.

Not exactly the 4 days they guaranteed.

But it's not just DHL! I requested a transcript from Columbia. It was sent via USPS on 9/21 and still has not arrived. The doctor's note I need was sent 9/28 and has not arrived. I live approximately 15 blocks from my house.

I might have to extend my visit home after all...