Monday, January 29, 2007

And it's only getting worse...

Dozens die in Angola flash floods:

"We will put people in tents or in roofed shelters. We are seeing to it that the roads are quickly cleared of water before enforcing measures to prevent cholera," Mr Capapinha told reporters.
We happen to be moving our Luanda office this week. Wonderful timing.

The biggest concern is the spread of the cholera epidemic. With the urban chaos in Luanda, it will likely spread more quickly than before.

Turning 30 in Angola

I turned 30 on January 15. (Thanks for all of you who sent well-wishes!) With genius timing, my coworker, Salomé, who happened to be sitting next to me during a meeting on the actual date, asked if I had dyed my hair. I assumed that she meant dyed my hair lighter, because with all the time in the sun my hair has gone a shade lighter. I said that no, no dyeing, my hair just gets lighter in the sun. “No, no,” she said. “You have this big patch of white hair in the back of your head, so I was wondering if you had dyed your hair white.” Happy birthday, indeed!

War Stories

Picture of a mural in our former guesthouse. Village scene of Cubal. Villages like these in Cubal were largely abandoned because it was too dangerous for people to stay.

I went to Cubal again last week to meet with the director of a Catholic mission hospital that we are staring a project with. My driver was Domingos, someone I had never really had the opportunity to speak with before. The difficult road was even more treacherous thanks to all the rains, meaning that the trip would take 4.5 hrs instead of the usual 3.5 hours. So Domingos and I chatted it up. He taught me more Umbundu words and phrases- I now know how to say, “I’m fine, just plowing my fields.” (“Ocasí loco lavrá.”)

He also told me stories about the area during the war. He pointed out a little mountain that had two rock towers, and told me this story: the government forces (MPLA) were using air strikes to fight the UNITA (rebel) forces in the surrounding areas of Cubal. The UNITA forces were largely guerrilla, and hid in the mountains and jungles near Cubal. UNITA didn’t have planes, so the MPLA guys apparently felt confident. On a cloudy day, the pilot of one of the planes decided to go hot-dogging on his way to the airstrip outside Cubal. He went vertically and tried to pass between the two rock towers. Well, it was a little foggy that day, and the pilot couldn’t see very well and hit the edge of his wing when he came in between the towers. He then got nervous and tried to go back to horizontal position, but he hadn’t completely passed through the towers. The plane then crashed into the surrounding forests, which happened to be the area they had targeted for bombing. After that, the MPLA didn’t do any more air strikes near Cubal.

I stayed at the mission, which includes the hospital I was to visit. The mission is run by about 15 nuns, Spanish and Angolan. As Sister Milagros was giving me a tour of the hospital compound, she pointed out one building. “This building was the only one that was hit during the war.” It was an overnight room for patients, and it needed some painting, so in the morning they took everyone out of the room. The painters went to work. During the painters’ lunch break, the building was hit with a bomb.

Apart from this, the hospital was one of the few safe zones. People would leave their houses at night and seek refuge in the hospital compound. The government hospital across the road would kick people out at night and send them to the mission. They had so many people seeking refuge that they would secretly expand the fences of the compound, so they could fit more people in without anyone noticing.

On the way home, Domingos told me how most of his friends and he were "drafted" into the armies (MPLA or UNITA, didn't matter). Groups of soldiers would come into the villages and basically kidnap any boy old enough to serve in the army. Domingos told me the story of when they came to his village. He was still too young, but his older brother was 14, the perfect age. His mother told his brother to hide under the bed until the soldiers left. The soldiers came to his house and started to look around. They were almost safe until a cat ran out from under the bed where his brother was hiding. The soldiers then took his brother. Luckily, his brother survived the war and came home six years later- the first time they had seen or heard from him in that time.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Rain, rain, go away

The rainy season has begun early. In general the roads in Lobito are horrible, but they cease to be roads when it rains. They turn into small lagoons, as you can see here. This is the road in front of our office, taken one day after a huge rainfall. As you can see, huge puddle has taken up residence in road. This was on a dry, sunny day, after a lot of the puddle had evaporated. Right now, the lagoon is much bigger and turning an amazing shade of emerald green. If it weren't so unsanitary, it would be beautiful! And yes, the cholera outbreak in Angola, started last year, continues strong.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

How things work around here: Passport/Visa edition

Before arrival in Angola, I was warned how difficult it was to deal with work visas. This is why I entered the country with a tourist visa, armed and ready with all the necessary paperwork, doctor’s notes, notarized transcripts and resumes, and so on, for a work visa. I was instructed by our Luanda Logistics Guy that I should bring this paperwork with me and apply for the work visa from Angola, which is why I got very nervous when the Angolan consulate in Houston wanted me to leave all this paperwork there. I had no trouble getting the tourist visa, but the woman at the consulate kept trying to tell me that they had to send the paperwork from there, directly contradicting what the logistics guy was telling me. It took me a while to convince her to give me back the paperwork, but she did, and gave me one of those "If you so say so" looks.

Oh, if only I had known! I entered the country on the tourist visa with no problem. I immediately turned in all the paperwork to Luanda Logistics Guy and was told that I would get the work visa in a few weeks. Skip ahead to the end of October. Luanda Logistics Guy comes back with an answer- NO WORK VISA FOR YOU! Oh, and “Also, you should have submitted all of this work visa paperwork from the United States.” ARGH! This was frustrating, but I didn’t think it would be a problem because, in theory, all I had to do was renew my tourist visa every three months.

My three months (90 days) came in the middle of November. I happened to be going to Luanda, and on a Monday I handed my passport over to the same logistics guy. DEFA, the immigration department, keeps your visa and gives you a receipt that you are supposed to use in lieu of a passport. In other countries this wouldn’t be such a big deal except that, thanks to Angola's Soviet-style bureaucracy, all air travelers are required to present documentation when they travel domestically. This means that I go through customs every time I fly. Now, back in November when I was going back to Lobito Luanda Logistics Guy says, “Oh, I just went to DEFA and they only accept passports Monday through Wednesday, so I’ll take it next week and today you’ll have to travel with this letter I wrote explaining everything.” I said, “I gave you the passport on Monday, why did you just take it today?” Blank… stare…. “Leslie, I’m very busy.” Of course, it's his job to know when to take visas to DEFA and then to take them there, but hey- he had things to do! I was seething, but let it go.

The driver who took me to the airport had my passport so I was able to get to Lobito, but getting through customs once in Lobito was another issue. The DEFA guy took one look at the letter that Luanda Logistics guy wrote and more or less laughed and said, “You can’t give us this. We need the passport or the receipt.” Manuel João, the awesome driver who was picking me up at the airport, was a little late, so I was trying to convince the DEFA guy that I was an upright foreigner, working for and NGO and, gosh, I just didn’t know ANYTHING about a receipt- aren’t I a silly woman, tee hee? Finally Maneul João showed up. The DEFA guy tried suddenly said, “You’ll have to go back to Luanda, then. Unless…” and sort of stretched his arms. I thought, “Oh, so this is how they ask for bribes!” But MJ held his ground and said, “No, she’s not going to Luanda, she’s staying here because it’s 5 pm and there are no more flights out today.” Then they suddenly found a problem with the entry-date stamp on the copy of the passport. It wasn't visible, so he said, "We don't know when you arrived in country." So I said, "August 26, 2006," which he wasn't expecting. At that point he finally realized he wasn't getting a bribe and that it was almost 6 pm and time to go home, so he left me off with a very stern warning.

The above story isa bit of a sidetrack, but shows how Luanda Logistics Guy operates. Or, in this case, doesn’t operate. He just does not do his job. I would say he is mildly competent in other areas, but in this area he is notoriously incapable of doing his job. He sent one employee off to South Africa, telling him he didn’t need a visa. 24 hours later the employee was sent back to Angola because he didn’t have a visa to enter the country. Another employee and his wife had to delay their return to the US by over a week because Luanda Logistcs Guy forgot that you have to have an exit visa. You get the idea.

Now- I turned my passport into him on Nov 18. I got my receipt from Luanda a week later, so I was in the clear. And then I did something dumb. Because everyone is required to carry identification at all times, when going out for drinks or to the disco I would put the receipt and copy of my passport in my pockets. In all the weeks I carried that receipt around, I never forgot to take it out of my pocket. Until one fateful night when I forgot, and the maid came the next day and washed my jeans! The receipt disappeared, along with any ability to travel beyond Lobito via airplane. I then thought, “Hmm, DEFA has had my passport for about two months now,” which is quite long. I asked our legal affairs lady here in Lobito and she said, ‘What?! That process should only take two or three days.” Uh-oh. So she started to track down my passport, and Luanda Logistics Guy says the last time he went it wasn’t ready. When pressed as to when this was, he said it was over 3 weeks ago, when he went to check on another ex-pat employee’s passport- way longer than it should have been.

We finally got word of my passport this last Monday. He said, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I have your passport. The bad news is that the extended visa expired on December 21st.” Okay, let’s get this straight. They held on to the passport for over two months, and when they finally issued the extension, they did so for a date that occurred over a month ago? I don’t think so. Basically, he forgot that my visa was in DEFA and let it sit there. In spite of the fact that this guy got caught not doing his job and completely lying about it, he refused to assume any responsibility for it.

It gets better! Apparently in-country extensions are a one-shot deal, and you have to leave the country before they expire. If you leave the country and come back, you get another 3 month visa- but only if you leave the country. So I will have to leave the country very soon- and pay a huge fine when I do- in order to be here legally.

And they are requesting that I resubmit all the work visa paperwork again (!!!), so that I finally get a work visa and avoid all this hassle. But there has been a change in policy, and now all foreign work visas- except for the oil company employees- must be submitted from their country of origin. This means that the lady at the Angolan consulate in Houston was right all along! Since all of this paperwork must be submitted in the US, I will have to leave the country every three months until I go on home leave! AND, the paperowork (notarized everything, doctor's letters, etc) has to be up-to-date, so all the paperwork I have from August 2006 won’t count. So when I DO finally get home, I’ll likely have to spend a few days doing this junk all over again. So terribly frustrating, and so terribly avoidable.

Oh, the confusão!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

At the end of a very long night, with no strength left for Kizomba

Around 8:30 am, January 1, 2007. Marisa, Mark, me and some other lady still up for more...
This is Angola!

Friday, January 12, 2007


I've posted some pictures from the holidays at the "My Pictures" link to the right. This picture here isn't one of them, but I liked this kid. he was just hanging around the holiday party I went to in Cubal. He is sporting an example of the type of things you find in the used-clothes stalls in the local markets. Was it cold that day? Not particularly. Does he look sharp in his hood and blazer? Of course!

Thursday, January 11, 2007


Photo of the Benguela airport, where I usually fly in/out of...

The other night I ran into Chris, the oil worker from New Orleans who had us over to his house for Thanksgiving dinner. He had just come back from his holiday home leave and reported that he flew back on the “oilman express,” the oil-company charted flight that leaves from Houston and goes directly to Luanda. This is the only flight that leaves the US and goes directly to Luanda (which, by the way, he says is 90% business class). Otherwise you have to travel like I did- to Europe and then Luanda. My trip took around 36 hours, not including drive time in Luanda (considerable), the wait in the airport for the flight to Lobito (very considerable), and then the actual flight to Lobito (incredibly, not long at all at only 45 minutes!).

Anyway, I expressed my envy to Chris, and he said, “Well, you know, TAAG is going to start a new flight from Houston to Luanda. I read it in the in-flight magazine!” I didn’t want to believe it, but folks, the dream is coming true! Even us non-petroleum Houstonians will be able to fly out of Intercontinental and into 4 de Fevereiro! I did some checking on-line, and of 5 big Boeings that the government of Angola purchased last November, one will be used for a HoustonLuanda route!

(The purchase of these airplanes was BIG news, something Angolans were very proud of. It was timed around Independence Day, November 11, and there was quite a big to-do surrounding the purchase. As you can see from the Angolan ambassador to the US’ remarks, all important Angolans were in Seattle for the ceremony. They showed it over and over on TPA, of course, and they kept showing the Boeing official say that this was the biggest one-time purchase an African nation had ever made. Badge of corruption for the government,perhaps?)

Another thing I came across while Googling was this tidbit about 4 de Fevereiro, Luanda’s international airport:

On May 25, 2003, another 727, US Number plate N844AA, was stolen off the tarmac of the airport. The aircraft was reported to be working for Air Angola at the time. The aircraft had reportedly been in Seychelles and had asked permission to land but had disappeared after that. There is considerable mystery surrounding the plane, as it had been parked on the tarmac for over a year accumulating airport fees exceeding $4,000,000.

Only in Angola will a 727 be “stolen” from the airport! Oh, the confusão!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

This is where I live.

I live towards the second half of Restinga (the name of this little peninsula). A friend took this picture from the lighthouse on the other side of the bay. I haven't made it out there yet. The bay is allegedly the deepest in Africa.

This is the ponta, or "point" at the end of Restinga. There are a few restaurants and bars. Also a popular place for families to picnic and for bandidos to cause trouble.
This is my apartment building, one of the tallest buildings on Restiga at 6 stories tall. I live on the 4th story.

More pictures of my actual apartment later!

Iron Everything

That is the advice I got from my ex-pat colleagues when I first arrived. I thought it seemed a bit excessive until Sergey came into my office the other day with this little jar. Inside the jar were three small worm-like creatures. He shouted, “These came from my son!”

They were putsi flies. The putsi fly likes to lay eggs on wet clothing. They somehow get into your skin, where the eggs start to turn into larva, and eventually into a fly that burrows its way out of your skin. They look like pimples. Sergey saw them on his 1 yr old son and thought, “He’s awfully young to have acne,” and started to pop them. Out came the worms!

Anne, my French coworker and friend, is a nurse. She says all you have to do to get rid of them is to rub Vaseline on your skin, which suffocates them.

So this is why I iron everything, down to my underwear and socks.

The son is fine- just turned a bug-free 1 yr old on Saturday. As you can see from the picture, he's just fine!

Monday, January 08, 2007


Here is a great article about unusual names in Venezuela. Honduras gets a special mention as well. When I was there as a Peace Corps volunteer, the national legislature passed a law outlawing "obscene" names. The "Llanta de Milagro" (Miracle Tire) was one that was often cited as being obscene. Another one that did not appear in this article but cited (in an urgent whisper), was Hijo de Verga Lara. For you non-Spanish speakers, "Hijo de" means "son of" and "verga" is a common slang word for the male anatomy. As if that weren't enough, "Lara" sounds much like the Spanish word for "long." I kid you not. When I read about the obscene name law in the paper, they had a photocopy of poor Hijo's birth certificate. He was born in 1903, so hopefully he lived out the centruy without problems.

Not too many unusual names in Angola. My name is very difficult for Portuguese speakers to say, so I usually get called "Leizy" which sounds like "Lazy" in English. Insert your own quip here.

UPDATE: Apparently the NYT article has been taken down already. Sorry

Friday, January 05, 2007

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Busta Rymes in Angola

Apparently Busta Rymes rang in the new year in Luanda. With him were Akon 2 and Heavy Seven, who prove that I am no longer in tune with American pop culture because i have no idea who they are. Here is an on-line article about it, if you care to try out your Portuguese. A few weeks ago Missy Elliot was here, along with other hip-hop people.

UPDATE: I wonder if they knew about this when they asked him to come!

Personally, I prefer KUDURU, Angola's local form of rap (kuduru means hard a**). It's hard to describe, but it's a combination of late 80s-sounding rap and Brazilian funk music. It comes from the musseques (the slums) and is most heard in Luanda. It's hard and fast, and not anything I would relax to at home, but seeing it in action is quite impressive. The dance to kuduru is a type of breakdancing and series of spastic movements. The crazier the better. Here's a link to a video from one of the most popular kuduru groups of the moment, Os Lamba. Os Lamba are from a musseque and have a reputation as being the real thing, very tough. I was with a friend and her 6 year old son, who was bothering her for her cell phone. When he finally realized she wasn't going to give in and hand over the cell phone, he very angrily said, "Oh Mama! I'm going to send Os Lambas after you!" The video was filmed in a museeque in Luanda. It's one of the few Angolan videos that gets played on the South African music channel I get. It's a funny video and you get a good idea of what the dance is like. You can also see the bleached hair look that is very popular at the moment.

Feliz 2007!

I am back in the office for the first time since the Friday before Christmas. I was a little bitter about being forced to take vacation days (in essence all the ones I've saved up until now!) but I have actually quite enjoyed my time off in Lobito.

Christmas was nice. Several colleagues/friends and I went to Mark and Domingas’ house for dinner. The keg of Cuca (Angolan beer, brewed down the road in Catumbela) left over from the office party provided us with hours of drinking, and the gingerbread cake with cream cheese frosting and the Bogus cookies I made were a big hit. It was about 80 degrees F and I spent most of the day at the beach, so it didn’t quite feel like Christmas, but it was still nice. I was with friends, so that’s all I really needed.

New Year’s was quite the party. In general, Angolans love to party. The parties here start around midnight and last until 7 am the next morning. New Year’s was even more extreme. Those who can afford it buy tickets to two of the big organized parties in town: Ferrovia (the yachting “club” and party space) and Mateus Columbo (rich Angolan who throws a big party at his big house). The tickets aren’t cheap. As a woman I only had to spend US$90 for the party at Ferrovia, which lasts two nights; men had to pay US$100. I went with colleague friends and their various spouses. Arriving shortly after midnight, there still weren’t too many people there. By 3 am the place was absolutely packed. Apart from the good music and dancing, I had a great time because I realized that I am recognizing more and more people where I go, meaning that I am making friends. Amazing!

Slowly but surely, it got lighter and suddenly it was 6:30 am. The party was still raging, but we decided to go home. We had parked the cars at Juan’s house and walked (the bad traffic was even worse on New Year’s). Juan lives in front of the beach, and as we got there, we just sort of wandered to the beach, stripped down to our underwear and went for a swim. Suddenly, 6 of Juan’s neighbors were there with us. Another party! Finally around 9 a.m. I made it home and crashed for a few hours.

I recuperated on the beach near my house, which is normally vacant but was absolutely packed that day. I took another nap and headed out with friends Domingas and Maria Teresa for another night at the Ferrovia. The second night was much calmer, with fewer people who were drinking mostly water instead of whisky and beer like the night before. We ended up staying until only 5 am that night.

In all, I had a nice holiday season. It’s always sad to be away from family and good friends at this time of the year, but I spent it with friends here and had a great time. I really like Angola these days. Feeling good about my work and being here are all the Christmas presents I need right now.