21 May 2015
The brutality of travel
Welcome to Angola, a plane filled with French speaking Congolese, a flight crew that could care less about L'Americain, a couple of expats, and a rather cranky ground crew who only speak Portuguese. I lost sight of that familiar comfort of home in a nano-second, when I realized that it is not standard fair to land uninvited in a country that is notorious for being a hotbed of conflict and engaged nonstop in civil war since 1975.
My seat mate on flight 0888, Bertrand, turned out to be my concert connection. He had no reason whatsoever to help me, really. Two hundred people all had the same goal -- get to the next place. First. (That's a cultural thing that will surface again soon.) Meaning, don't care if I squish you, step on you, shove you, knock you around to get to where I need to go, first. Multiply that by 8+ hours on a plane, no food, full airline toilets, turbulence, screaming children, and a flight crew that has no clue as to what is going on. And there you have the root of a common goal.
The announcement came from our illustrious Captain that we were disembarking the plane and the Angolans would "take it from there." Oh, dear. So, when Bertrand kindly offered to translate and escort me off the plane, I accepted his offer and followed him blindly into the Angolan abyss.
Being constantly off balance
Without reliving the entire episode, I shall attempt to summarize my airport / hotel experience: at 9:30 pm, I relinquished my passport to police 5 feet into the doorway of airport terminal, stood in line for 1 1/2 hours while authorities did something. No idea what. Stood around for another hour waiting for passport to be returned long enough to walk 10 feet through customs and have to return passport to police. Sat on bus for 1/2 hour to hotel. Hotel lobby in total chaos as many, many travelers all trying to get a room. Three hotel employees checking people in; one to take voucher, one to make copy of voucher, one to run the computer and finally, an exasperated airline passenger jumped in and passed out keys.
At some point in the passport debacle, I realized that this was going to be a very. long. night. Nothing. Nothing with Air France was going as planned, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about. So, here's what I did: I dropped my head, asked G-d to please watch over me, and I offered up to the folks who were standing in my vicinity beer. Aaaaahhhh, the universal language! Yep. Not math, not Latin, not Chinese. And most certainly not English. But, yes! Beer. The hotel bar was well stocked and the drinks began to flow. Our attitudes as fellow travelers improved, the tone of the conversation shifted, and we started to share who we were, what our travel adventures were; kindred spirits enjoying each other in the lobby of Tropico Hotel, Luanda, Angola.
I met Michael, who works for the U.S. State Department, on holiday for two months so that he can volunteer in northern Congo teaching English to school kids. I met Ana, a québécois working on her P.h.D. doing public health research. I met two CDC employees who were working with the Congo government to do public education seminars for MMR vaccines. I met the most beautiful Congolese woman who was dressed to the nines, I mean head to toe, this old gal was decked out. She spoke zero English, but we managed to exchange our ages (she was 64), and the fact that we thought each other was beautiful. (Or, she was saying that she hoped I would fall off the face of the earth so that she could have a room sooner. But I like the first option better....)
Did I mention the flight crew wrote my hotel voucher as if Bertrand and I were a couple? This interesting factoid surfaced at around 2am. Bertrand, the perfect stranger, gave me the room he had been waiting for for hours, and waited another God only knows how long for the hotel to arrange a room for him. Mind you, the process of "checking in" 200 passengers was still occurring at a pace equal to. How shall I put this? Let's go with, mind numbingly slow.
Bertrand was no longer a stranger to me, but an angel sent down from Angolan heaven in the shape of a hotel bed and a hot shower. So, I crawled into my bed at a bit past 2am, woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed on Monday, and headed out to explore Luanda.
My first stop was at a La Coste store to buy a clean shirt. (The one I was wearing on the plane could now stand on its own; unpleasant, to say the least). I had the pleasure of being assisted by Ana, a white Angolan whose family was one of the original Portuguese families who settled in 1880 in Luanda. She spoke perfect English and offered to show me around the town. We walked to a local market, bought wine and snacks, we walked to the Ilha (loosely translates to beach strand), she walked me through a couple of neighborhoods and we ended our tour at the Anthropology Museum. They had a really good collection of Angolan artifacts including masks and headdresses of Angolan Himba (!).
The next morning, Air France assured us that the plane would be leaving Angola at 930am. What they didn't tell us was that the President of Angola would close the airport and make us sit on the Tarmac for an hour while he did whatever Angolan presidents do at the airport. My guess is confirm his passport / Visa so that he could get into his country. . .
All that being said, Angola was a great experience. I was reminded (albeit rather abruptly) that in order to travel well, I must put away those comforts of my home soil, be okay with a little brutality, trust that most people are good, and, be totally off balance.
As a wise man once said, "sometimes losing your balance over what you love is part of keeping the balance in your life". Ketut Lyer
Onward to Kinshasa.