Jan 282014
 

Having survived the night, it was time to head to the airport to fly down to Angola’s capital, Luanda. The problem is, there are only like 40 taxis in all of Cabinda, and despite the hotel front desk guy promising over and over that one was on the way, for 30 minutes there was no sign.

Of course, there were plenty of share taxis puttering by in the street, and eventually Jordan and I made the decision to chance one. We had the front desk guy flag one down, negotiated a good price…and we were off. Until….BANG!

This wasn’t just a flat tire, it was an absolute blowout. We’d agreed on approx $5 to the airport, so after realizing this car was going nowhere fast, and the driver seemed completely unphased by it, we used him to flag down another taxi to go the rest of the way. It already had three people in the little car (think sub-compact) but in went these two large American guys, two large bags, AND smaller bags. I think we were all sitting on each other, absolutely packed in, three african women, two large american guys, a few chimpanzees, a goat or two, a flock of chicken, and a couple of elderly cattle. Hmmmm, I might be imagining the cattle…but it sure felt like it. This was no luxury sedan, but about 10 minutes later we did make it to the airport, for the princely sum of $1 each. To be fair, we did give a little money to the guy with the blown-out tire – he’d definitely need it for repairs.

Having made it to the airport, the task was to find the check-in counter. Which was way more difficult than it sounded. There were four counters that LOOKED like check-in counters, but no lines, just a swarm of people around them. We just started wildly waving our arms around and saying TAAG? Luanda? Sim? Eventually, we were pointed by different people to each of the four different counters…so I tried a new tactic. Executiva? Business Class? That seemed to work, and someone pointed us to a lady at one of the counters.

She looked at us…looked at our passports…and said in all seriousness: “Why did you not check-in LAST NIGHT.” Excuse me? We have to check in the night before, are you serious? She was, indeed, serious, and pointed to a sign on the counter, that either said “please give me a $100 bill if you want helpful service” or “please check in two hours in advance, for passengers on the first flight of the day, check-in is the night before.” I couldn’t be sure – I don’t read Portuguese.

Having decided she’d not be making any bribes off us today, she asked for our tickets. “E-tickets…in computer” – “No. I need a printed copy. Go to TAAG office OUTSIDE AIRPORT and get a printed receipt.” Seriously? You refuse to look it up, and we have to go outside and around the corner to another guy with the same computer, who will look it up, and print us a receipt? Ugh. To the office…and the same question “why didn’t you check in last night?” Um, I’ve been to over 150 countries, and have never heard this “check in the day before concept.” Angola, you’re truly unique.

He did, however, print us very nice receipts, which we took back to lady #1, and she was kind enough to check us in. Security was…a complete joke. I’m pretty sure the x-ray machine wasn’t working, and people were walking through with the body scanner beeping like R2D2 in a moment of excitement. Anyways, we made it to the waiting lounge…which was packed.

Right when we were supposed to be departing…we saw the plane come in.  About 20 minutes later a TAAG person appeared, which apparently meant “every man for himself” and everyone started swarming the boarding door.  We’ve had enough African experience to know that if you don’t do your share of shoving, you might as well wait until everyone has passed, so….shove we did and we managed to get out the door.  We were overheard by a couple that noted it was our first time in Angola, and said they’d been there something like 10+ years.  They had the missionary or NGO look to them….and I give them a lot of credit.  Angola’s certainly not for the timid!

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Queuing to board:

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Misc military stuff on the tarmac:

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Jan 262014
 

Right around noon, the taxi dropped us at the only hotel we’d managed to find online, the Hotel Maiombe. Now, “find online” didn’t mean it appeared bookable anywhere, and when I tried to call the only number I could find online it just went to a dead end. So, we were hoping it was there, and not too absolutely depressing.

When we got there, yes, they did have rooms, and the lobby area didn’t look too bad, a corner filled with local crafts for sale, and a very festive sitting area:

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The rooms?  Well, I was less than impressed.  Air conditioning was barely functional, standard rooms only had twin beds, and yes, there were suites with a queen bed (but not much more space) for $50 more.  The suite also felt a little cooler, so I decided to go for it.  Not sure if it was a worthwhile choice or not, but… At least things appeared mostly clean, and the rooms were functional, albeit a bit spartan.

Biggest downside was, it was a complete ripoff.  About $160 for a two star (at best) room, or around $210 for the suite.  Also, no internet in the rooms at all.  Thus, we hung out in the hotel bar/lounge in the evening, which did have internet and very affordable drinks.  Around $4 for huge beers, so all in all, it wasn’t bad.  Just a total ripoff for the price paid.

Just one other comment on the hotel:  when I went to bed around 11 or 12, it was warm in the room – very warm.  The small air conditioner was putting out a little cool area, but only enough to cool the area right underneath it.  So, I slid the bed right underneath it, and ended up sleeping face at the foot of the bed to get a little cool air – it was finally enough to make the room good enough to fall asleep.  At least there were no mosquitos in the room!

So, the minute we checked in, the clerk demanded payment up front – in cash.  He spoke no English, but we finally managed to communicate we’d head to the ABM, and be back in 10 minutes.  Fortunately there was no shortage of ABMs in Cabinda, and it was easy enough to take care of.  Everything sorted with the hotel, we headed out to explore for a bit.

Mission one, find lunch.  We headed to the first restaurant Jordan had found, which was billed as a local sports pub that was “popular with expats.”  There were precisely two people inside, and one dish on offer, and it just seemed off.  Bonus though, it was next to the local football club, which had a cool statue of their mascot outside:

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So, we kept walking.  There was another restaurant down the road, so we kept walking:

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Jan 242014
 

Of all the parts of this difficult trip, I’ll admit that this was the one I was most aprehensive about. There’s not much information online about making this trip by taxi, and given the fact both Congo and Angola have notorious levels of corruption and bureaucratic BS up the wazoo…oh and combine that with my minor princess status…it promised to be an adventure. We’d pieced together enough information online, but for starters, we weren’t even positive the land border would be open on a Sunday!

On paper, it didn’t look too bad:

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See, Cabinda is a small enclave of Angola, surrounded by Congo on the north and Democratic Republic of Congo on the South/East, and then after about 20 miles of DRC in the south you come to Angola again:

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For this reason, we wanted to visit.  As if Angola wasn’t difficult enough, Cabinda has been an active war zone from time to time.  In 1975 when the liberation movements in Angola signed the treaty with Portugal, they reaffirmed that Cabinda was a part of Angola, even though it wasn’t connected.  This was preceded by the formation of MLEC and FLEC, guerrilla movements advocating the secession of Cabinda.  They operated a guerrilla war until 2006 when they finally signed a peace treaty.  That’s not to say things have been happily ever after.  In 2010 the Togolese football team bus was en route from Pointe-Noire to Cabinda for the Africa’s Cup, and was attacked by a FLEC splinter group, killing three people.  So, Cabinda’s kinda…edgy!

So an edgy place, little information, and corruption…what could go wrong?!

I was prepared for the roughly 100km trip to take 8+ hours, and fully expected everything that could go wrong to go wrong.

Taxi to the Congo border was slightly more than we expected at 15,000 CFA ($30) but he wouldn’t budge, given the fact he had to pay tolls along the way, and would likely return empty.   We probably could have saved $10 by taxi shopping, but weren’t in the mood to waste time so off we went.  We’d read online it was somewhere around 20 minutes to the border, but ended up taking closer to 35 with traffic.  Our taxi dropped us off maybe 500m from the border, and we walked the rest of the way.  We were harassed by touts and people offering help from the instant we got out of the taxi, but when we ignored them they gave up after maybe a minute.  Really?  That easy?  On the Ghana-Togo border I never did manage to shake them.  They must not see many western tourists here!

Asked a few people, and easily found the exit immigration shack for Congo.  Piece of cake, one or two questions about why we were in Congo, why we were going to Angola, and that was it.  Stamp, stamp, stamp, we were out of Congo.  I confirmed where to go next from the immigration guy, and left the house and turned left.  Someone started yelling after us…

Turns out he was the health dude, and wanted a look at our vaccination cards.  Nothing unusual there, until he grabbed a stamp, and stamped in both of them…”Cholera – Waived”  Um, excuse me?  I’ve had that vaccination.  But he was having none of it.  He’d exempt us from having that vaccine (probably chosen because it’s obscure) but we’d have to pay a 3,000 CFA fine each for the stamp.   It wasn’t the money, but the scam that set me off…and I went off on him…in that way that you know you’re gonna eventually have to convince him you’re alpha dog or you’re going to end up arrested.  50 or 100 countries ago, I would have been scared by his authority, and done whatever he asked.  I was now enough of an Africa veteran to push things.  I started chewing him out in French, and made up a great story…told him I worked for the WHO (World Health Organization) and if he was going to insist on this corruption I was going to call the Ministry of Health back in Brazzaville and confirm this.  He could decide to give up his scam….or (assuming he believed me) potentially have to answer to his big boss AND a UN agency.  To emphasize my threat…I pulled out my cell phone and started fake dialing….he paused….and we got an ALLEZ-Y!  GO AWAY!  …and it worked.  Jason and Jordan 1 – Corruption 0

Then, it was time for the real test.  Angola immigration.  Waited in one line, whose only purpose seemed to be to verify we had a visa, and he sent us to a small booth in the middle of the road.  This turned out to actually be the immigration officer….brief questions (since he didn’t speak english, and only a little french) about our plans in Angola.  “Today – Cabinda.  Tomorrow – Luanda.  Next – Sao Tome.”  He seemed to get what we were up to, was pleased with it, and stamped us in….wait, that’s IT?!

Right next to the booth Jordan changed the last of his CFA for Angolan Kwanza (most awesome currency name EVER btw) and that was it…we were done.  Terribly anticlimactic….really?

We’d read a taxi to Cabinda city would cost $100 US, and no sooner were we out of the fenced in area than a nice Toyota SUV pulled up, let out 6 passengers, and asked “Ciudad?”  Yes, we wanted to go to the city.  I’d used google translate for basic portuguese, so I knew “how much” as well as “80″ and “100.”  So, I offered him $80.  He shook his head…”no $100″ ok, fine…it was a nice air conditioned SUV instead of a taxi, so we figured we’d go for it.  The ride could be up to two hours.  So we set of….

10 minutes into the drive, was a police booth on the side of the road….he wanted to check our passports to make sure we’d entered legally and had visas.  Yup, everything in order, we’re on the way.  What, no bribe?  Seriously?

The drive had some great views….notice the driver’s American flag air freshener:

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After a wide, we drove by the large oil complex, fenced in of course, home to tons of foreign oil workers.  Like Pointe-Noire, Cabinda exists for oil…part of why it’s so important to Angola.  As we approached the city, nearly 100km later, we approached the Cup of Nations statium, the destination for the ill-fated Togolese football team that had been attacked a few years prior:

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…and with that, we were in Cabinda.  The taxi driver made a weak attempt to tell us the hotel we’d picked sucked, and that he knew a much better one.  I’m sure you do, and I’m sure “much better” means my relative owns it and I get a kickback.  We declined, and he took us where we wanted to go.  Just like that…piece of cake.  It was surprising just how perfectly everything had gone, and I was still sure disaster was looming around the corner to pounce on us!