Monday, April 28, 2008

2 Continents, 3 Countries, 7 days

Only 6 days after arriving in the DR, I got on a plane to Jamaica, where the majority of my projects are based. It's been a bit exhausting traveling to all these place in such a short time. I'm sick of being on planes!

There's a line on the Jamaican immigration form that asks you how many countries you've visisted in the last 6 weeks. Normally I might fudge the truth a bit to avoid any problems, but I realized I would actually be presenting my passport with a record of where I've actually been, so I would have to tell the truth. The total number was four: Namibia (for visa renewal), Angola, the Dominician Republic and now Jamaica. (Five if you count transit time in Miami.)

The sweet immigration lady took one look at my form and said, "Oh Miss, please tell me you have an immunization record with you." I proudly produced my WHO card and she smiled and said, "Oh, you're a smart girl." Such a nice change from the previous immigration official I had encountered!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Angolan SME Agents are a Bunch of Thieving, IGNORANT Crooks!

Finally, I can say that without fear that I will be denied a visa by some Angolan bureaucrat with access to Google! I had one of the worst experience I've had in Angola upon leaving Luanda. It's a shame, because it was so unplesant that it has really left a negative impression- hopefully it will go away as times moves on.

Many of you might be familiar with my visa problems. (You can read about it here, here, here, and here.) Saturday night I was able to check in just fine and proceeded to the passport/visa control. I never had any problems in Luanda before, so I wasn't expecting anything to happen. If only I had stepped in a different line than the one I chose.

The agent took one look at my visa and immediately declared me not in compliance. I explained to him that my visa was valid for two years and that I had multiple entries of 90 days each. He said I didn't, and that I was in gross violation. I tried once again to explain, and he called over his "supervisor." When his "supervisor" came over, I tried to explain to him and both of them told me to be quiet. Then the "supervisor" left.

The agent came back to me and told me that I was going to have to pay a large fine- US$7,000- and stay in jail until it was paid- meaning I would miss my flight. At this point I lost it and started tearing up. I asked to speak to his supervisor, and in spite of the fact that the "supervisor" had just left, he told me his supervisor was not there. I tried again to tell him, as diplomatically as possible, that he was wrong. I got out my cell phone and tried to call our Human Resources director, the person responsible for these issues, the one who had intervened so many times before. He told me to put my phone away because it was a restricted area.

He said it was my company's fault and not to worry because my company would pay the fine. I explained that I worked for a humanitarian agency- hoping that he would take pity on me- and that they couldn't pay that money by that night. He shook his head and said, "well, then you'll have to go to jail."

Basically I was stuck- and crying. He said he would "help" me. He dawdled a bit then wrote something on a piece of paper and slipped it to me. It had "300" written on it and he just looked at me. I knew what it was, but I didn't want to believe it, so I asked him what it was supposed to mean. He said, "If you give me this then I'll help you go through without any problems." I said I couldn't do that because I would need a receipt. He again said that if I didn't give him that $300, then I would have to be put in jail until I could produce the $7,000.

Finally, I just paid the bribe because the thought of spending any more time in Angola than I had to was physically painful. I was so angry and upset- I really don't think I can find the words to describe what I was feeling. I had never paid a bribe before in my life, let alone paid one in Angola. I felt humilated and violated; not to mention the fact that I was making a scene by bawling my evyes out. Worst of all, I was completely innocent of whatever he was accusing me of. He clearly saw I was desperate and took advantage of that.

It took me over an hour to calm down. Even now when I think of it, I tear up. I know for a lot of people it may not be such a big deal, but to me it is. I've alwayss said that the reason corruption works is because people buy into it, but when faced with it directly, I too caved. Should I have fought it on principle?

I gave a lot to Angola- defended it when others knocked it, stayed to work long after I knew I was unhappy there. I just felt betrayed, to tell the truth. It infuriates me to think that a government employee who makes a good salary and has good benefits is the one who cheated me out of $300. Of course I'd prefer not to be cheated out of ANY money, but if I were to be cheated out any money, I would prefer it to be someone who needed it, like a street kid. (That may not make any sense to anyone but me.)

Like I said earlier, the worst part of this is that it will be my last memory of Angola. I wanted to leave on a positive note, but now that's too hard.

I've Arrived

I don't have much time to post since the work day is almost over, but I've arrived safely in Santo Domingo.

Unforatunately, I had a horrible experience leaving Luanda, a sotry that merits its own post, which I will try and write soon.

So far, the DR is great. My coworkers are extremely nice and friendly- every other word out of their mouth is a la orden, or "at your service." The biggest change, apart from the time zone, is the language. In spite of all my years of speaking Spanish, in many ways I feel Portuguese has set me back several levels! I'll catch up, hopefully.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Things I'll Miss About Angola: Miudos

Miudos = kids in Portuguese.

It's tough being a kid in Angola. According to the UN World Food Programme, out of 1,000 live births, there is a 250 infant mortality rate. Maybe why that's why I love the ones that make it. They are just too darn cute. I'll miss seeing the kids carrying their little plastic chairs to school every day because schools can't afford real desks. I'll miss the miudos that wash the cars in the parking lots of the grocery stores. I'll miss my coworkers' kids, Angolan or otherwise, who are the most adorable things I've seen.

Things I'll Miss About Angola: the Architecture

In talking with friends and family back home, I often use the analogy of Cuba to try and describe what Angola looks like. Like Cuba after the '59 revolution, Angola after independence in 1975 just sort of grinded to a halt in terms of construction. Many of the buidlings in Lobito were built in the 60s and 70s. As the war set in, obviously building maintenance and new construction became less and less of a priority.

There's a decaying elegance that the colonial-era buildings have. I really wish I could have seen Lobito in 1974- it must have been beautiful. Many of these buildings are occupied by squatters, which is starting to be a problem now that reconstruction is in full swing and owners are finally investing in their properties. For example, the house I talked about here now looks like this:
Not exactly an improvement, if you ask me. Luckily, there are people who are restoring original structures.

Things I'll Miss About Angola: the Confusão

A truck falls victim to the confusão in Luanda. This is not a fake picture.

The confusão here in Angola is an odd thing. Mostly it has made my life difficult. Your bathroom ceiling is leaking? Too bad. Your neighbors play kuduru at 3 am on a Tuesday? Too bad. You get threatened with arrest at the airport on totally baseless charges? Too bad.

It’s enough to drive a person crazy- really. Long ago I stopped trying to reason with the confusão, because the confusão will always win. Over time, I’ve just accepted the confusão of life here. Of course there are those times when I break down in the face of it, but generally I’ve come to appreciate it likely because I always knew that eventually I would be able to leave it behind. Like it or not, the confusão is what makes Angola so unique. This blog certainly would have been boring without it.

Things I'll Miss About Angola: Witchcraft

There are lots of beliefs about witchcraft here. I like hearing about them- how do we explain the strange things that happen around us? I guess since I don’t believe in it, it doesn’t scare me. Note: I will NOT miss witchcraft which ruins the lives of innocent children.

I’ve written about these things before: goats, tala, and the man whose picture cannot be taken. Also, anything black can be added to the list.

I was really worried about finding a good home for my cat, Willie. One thing people have said about Willie is that he is beautiful. I, of course, agree- he is all black and because he lives indoors mostly, he has a healthy coat. A colleague of mine came over to my apartment to do some inventory and I asked her if she knew anyone who would be willing to take Willie and give him a good home. “Ka! A black cat? No way! Tem fetiço com certeza. It has a spell on it, for sure.” She then explained that black cats come from the devil and do evil things. I took this all with a grain of salt. After all, in the US we have the superstition that black cats are bad luck if they cross your path. But especially because this colleague is a Seventh Day Adventist and won’t get in a car on Saturday because it’s devlish.

A few days later, another colleague offered to take Willie. I was so happy because I know he will have a good home. But a day or two later it suddenly dawned on me- this colleague is also Seventh Day Adventist! Will he suddenly reject Willie because he is all black? So I asked him and he just laughed at me. He said that the belief that things that are black has spells apply to everything- don’t buy a black car because it will be cursed! Don’t buy a black goat because it is cursed! Don’t paint anything black because it will be cursed! He said that if everything black was cursed, then the whole city would have collapsed. So he said it would be fine to take Willie, blackness and all.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Things I'll Miss About Angola: Living so close to the water

Where I live (until 19 April, that is...)

Okay, I know I'm moving to a Caribbean island, so I'm not too upset about leaving this side of the Atlantic behind. However, I doubt I'll ever be able to afford a place to close to the water after I give up this lifestlye.

This is in Benguela, actually, but it captures just how amazing beaches here can be.

I've been spoiled- I live no more than 2 blocks away from a nice beach and my kitchen overlooks a busy bay where I can watch all sorts of ships go by. (I can also see all the trash my neighbors dump there, but that's beside the point.)

This is the view from my kitchen during the day...

...and at sunset.

Also, how many people can take their after-work happy hours from any number of beach-side bars? The beach has also been a wonderful supply of improvised kitty litter.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

It's Official: Tchau Angola!

As some of you might already know, I am leaving Angola on 19 April. I applied for a job with my organization's office in the Dominican Republic and was lucky enough to be chosen for the position.

I'll have a similar position there: I'll manage a portfolio of projects covering HIV/AIDS, education and peacebuilding. I'll also be managing our emergency response to natural disasters, which will be different and exciting. But the most exciting thing of all is that the majority of my projects will be in Jamaica, so I'll have to travel there frequently. I know, I know, I lead a rough life.

I have mixed feelings about leaving. Overall, I must say that I am thrilled to be moving onwards and upwards. The move will be good for my career and good for me personally. Latin America has always been my region of interest, so I'll be getting back to an area I love. I've never been to the DR before, so it's a great opportunity.

I will say that in spite of the tremendous challenges I've faced here, I will miss Angola in many ways. To leave on a positive note, I'll try and address them over the next few days. One of the things I'll miss the most, of course, is my cat, Willie. He's been a great companion to me and there have been many a weekend when he is the only living being I talk to! I had hoped to bring him with me, but with all the traveling I'll be doing it's not really a good idea. Luckily, my colleague has offered to take him and give him a loving home.

The Case of the Missing Sneakers

This one is for the Encyclopedia Browns out there. My sneakers are missing from my apartment. Nothing else- no money, jewelry, computer gone- just my sneakers.

I last saw them a week ago Tuesday, when I managed to get up at 5:30 AM and go for a walk. Later that night I saw them again since my colleague was coming over to do a household inventory and I wanted to clean up my room. I remember putting them in my closet.

Tuesday of this week, I got up again at 5:30 to go for a walk. I got dressed and in my early morning haze started looking for my sneakers. I couldn’t find them so I started looking in the usual places. After an hour, I was beginning to think I had gone crazy. No one else had been in the apartment, except people that I know and trust. I don’t have a maid, and the handyman our organization employs (who is trustworthy) hadn’t been there either.

It suddenly occurred to me that I had left the key to the apartment with one of the guards on Thursday. The handyman was supposed to come by and install something in apartment; normally Stella, my upstairs neighbor, hands over the spare key she has. However, Stella and family are on vacation, so I had no one to give him the key. I handed it over to the youngest guard, Doutor. Doutor is my favorite guard- never sleeps on the job and is always on top of things- so I felt comfortable leaving it with him. Beside, I have seen my neighbors give him their keys for safe-keeping while they go to the beach, etc.

When I got home Thursday afternoon, the other guard (whose name I don’t know, so I’ll call him Bebado, aka Drunk) handed me the key and said that the handyman never showed up. This particular guard is my least favorite. He’s drunk half the time and in spite of making repeated requests to change him out, he’s still on the job for some reason. He’s the one who stood by and did nothing as a motorcyclist did a hit-and-run on my car. (Can’t remember if I posted about this, but the motorcyclist was likely drunk and rear-ended my car and got stuck. The whole time the guard was watching this and did nothing to stop him, which he could have considering that they were stuck to my car. Oh, Bebado was drunk too, we could smell it on him.)

Back to yesterday. In the morning as I was leaving for work, Doutor was still on his shift. I asked him if anyone had been in the apartment the last week, said that I was missing something, so if he knew anything to please let me know. I said I didn’t care about revenge; I just wanted my shoes back. He said that no one had been inside because the day that the handyman was supposed to come, he didn’t. He said he would ask the other guard and let me know what he found out.

When I came home for lunch, Bebado was on his shift. I asked him the exact same thing and immediately he said, “The other guy did it, I know!” I asked him how he knew and he said, “Well, I didn’t do it.” He was barely coherent (it could be that Portuguese is not his first language), so I really didn’t understand what he was saying. All I said was that I wasn’t accusing anyone, but that I had no explanation as to why the shoes were missing. I said that I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble, but if I didn’t have them back I would have to tell my supervisor.

After all this, I started to doubt myself. Maybe I had absentmindedly put them somewhere else, like the refrigerator? Maybe my cat had been playing with them and scurried them away to some corner? Maybe I had accidentally thrown them away? Last night I looked through literally every nook and cranny of my house and could not find them. I really doubt that I threw them away because I think I would have noticed something heavy like shoes in my small trash cans. The only explanation I can come up with is that someone entered my house and took them.

But… what a weird thing to take! The person would have had to have entered my room, gone into my closet and taken my shoes. Of all the things to take, why sneakers?

My colleague theorizes that whoever took them took them to sell. He suspects Bebado since he has a track record of drinking on the job, and perhaps needed money for booze.

I’m not sure what to think. Either one of the guards or his accomplice is a great burglar or the junk in the water has finally gotten me and I am completely losing my mind.

Monday, April 07, 2008


So last week I posted something about the government ordering the closure of the UN's Office of the High Commission on Human Rights.

Today, AngoNoticias reports on this important clarification:
"Nunca existiu um escritorio do Alto Comissariado da ONU para os direitos humanos."
"There never was an Office of the High Commission on Human Rights [in Angola]."

That pretty much sums up Angolan journalism, right there.

Apparently there was a section for human rights in the old observing UN mission, but the government denies that it sent a memo asking it to close.

We have a winner

According to CNN, Augusta Urica has won Miss Landmine 2008! Parabens! Her picture can be found here. There's also a nice slideshow there.

As the winner, she received her crown from the First Lady, Ana Paola. She wins a new artifical limb (which, from what I have seen, are prety rare here) and US$2,500.

Now, I tried to go on the website and see which province she represents, but she's not listed as a contestant. Odd. After some Googling, I found out that she is from Luanda. No offense to Miss Urica, but Luanda always wins everything! It would have been nice for someone from a province to win, like Huambo, Benguela or Bie, since those are the provinces most affected by landmines (I believe).

Also, I was mistaken when I said that this event took place last year. This apparently is the first yearo f the contest, although I could have sworn I read something about this last year. Oh well.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

"Governmet orders closure of UN's human rights office"

... as reported by Radio Ecclesia.

In spite of being elected to the UN’s Human Rights Council in May 2007, the Angolan government has apparently asked the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to close its office and leave Angola.

This article is in Portuguese and doesn’t give too much information as to why exactly they have been asked to leave. It’s interesting because in its letter presenting its candidacy for the Human Rights Council seat, the government lists its continued collaboration and dialogue with the OHCHR as part of its plan for human rights in Angola. Hmmm.

The outgoing representative, Vergard Bye, says the following about human rights and Angola:

A violação mais importante aqui em Angola e em geral em África é a violação dos
direitos sócio-económicos e sobre tudo o facto de Angola ser o país com maior
cresimento económico do mundo. Isto contrasta com alguns dado como por exemplo
de Angola ser o segundo país do mundo em mortalidade infantil.

My rough translation: The important violation in Angola, and in Africa in general,
is the violation of socio-economic rights, above all the fact that Angola is the
country with the biggest economic growth in the work. This contrasts with
data that, for example, shows Angola ranks as the second country in the world in infant mortality. (Emphasis mine.)

And the winner is?

Bocoio, 2007

Well, I'm sorry to say that I have no idea who won Miss Landmine Angola 2008. The pagaent was last night, but it wasn't broadcast on TPA (1 or 2) and I haven't heard any updates on the radio. Apparently there were more important things to put on TPA last night, like a Portuguese league futebol game and a Mexican telenovela.

Perhaps it was just a big deal in the Western media, not Angolan media. I'll ask some colleagues if they have heard anything. From the various articles and blog posts I've read, people either love or hate this idea.
I'm one of the people who love this idea. Not having seen the pagaent, I can't judge it completely, but from what I've seen on the website and in media reports, it's a positive event made to bring awareness to the cause of landmines in Angola and to give attention to these women who, otherwise, would be completely ignored by society. These women are typical Angolan women: largely single mothers, out of work and selling qualquer coisa (anything) just to make some money to feed their children. The pagaent won't likely change any of that, but I'm not sure that's the purpose. If a few hours in a fancy hotel and fancy clothes can make them feel better about themselves, then I'm all for it.
Some have made the argument that the $80,000 spent on this event would have been better spent on an NGO or on activities. Well, guess what? There are several NGOs dedicated to landmine destruction/removal in Angola. (The Halo Trust, Mine Action Group and UMCOR are a few.) They've all been here for a number of years and do wonderful work. But I argue that this one event has brought more attention to people who had never heard of Angola or this problem than donating $80,000 to an NGO.
People outside of Angola may not believe this, but $80,000 doesn't go very far here. Let me give a bit of perspective. I mentioned earlier that my organization is in the middle of developing a response to the flooding in Cunene province. We've been calling some of the embassies in Luanda to see if they have funds available, etc. One embassy offered us $50,000 or so for food and blanket distribtuion. The people assigned to the project went to some of the warehouses here to get prices. The price of ONE BLANKET is $100. So if we spent that $50,000 on nothing but blankets, we could only provide 500 blankets. So I'm actually pretty impressed that the organizers were able to put this event together for $80,000 in a city where a run-down apartment rents for $10,000 per month.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Miss Landmine 2008: Now it's CNN's turn...

CNN has a more descriptive write-up of the Miss Landmine Angola pagaent. (For once, CNN beat the BBC in terms of accuracy and detail!) The event seems to be getting a lot of press, which is nice because that means that the issue of landmines is getting more attention world-wide (and hopefully more money).

The pagaent is tonight. I'll try and catch it on TPA, although they often don't broadcast these things live. Poor Miss Moxico- according to the website, she is in last place in terms of internet votes.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Better late than never

Not a copihue

I love Chile. I spent a total of a year and a half there, between my university year abroad and just traveling. Perhaps it's because it was my first time experiencing a different culture and living abraod, but I look back at my time there as some of the best of my life.

Now that I have lived in other countries, my appreciation for Chile has grown. The carabineros (police) are trustworthy! The politicians aren't corrupt! You can drink the water! And, as it turns out, they deliver the mail!

The last time I visited Chile was in December 2003. As always, I sent out a batch of postcards to friends and family. I was living in New York at the time, and when I got back after my 3 week trip, no one had gotten my postcards. By January and February, I assured my family and friends that I had indeed thought of them, but that Correos de Chile screwed up.

Fast forward to March 31, 2008. I get an email from my father saying that he and my mother got a postcard from me. In his words, he thought, "That sneaky devil, flying off to Chile for a vacation!" until he read that I was reluctant to go back to the NYC winter.

Yes folks, 5 years and 3 months later, the postcards were delivered! My sister also got a postcard from the same batch, postmarked 2003 (the one my parents got didn't have a postmark). Most of the other people I sent them to have moved in the last five years, so who knows if they will turn up.

Viva Chile!