Angola Day 1 of 5 - Tough Day

Trip Start Sep 29, 2010
Trip End Nov 29, 2011

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Flag of Angola  ,
Thursday, March 3, 2011

Today's journey from Pointe Noire to Soyo, and the subsequent days spent hurtling through Angola to reach Namibia, is set against a bureaucratic backdrop in which I was only granted a 5-day transit visa for Angola.

And so today went something like this.

With three borders to cross in one day, and knowing the lengthy nature of such activities, I wanted to get to the Congo-Cabinda (Angola) border before it opened. Not knowing what time it opened however, meant I would hedge my bets and get there in time for the earliest likely opening, 7am.  So I rose at 05:30 and was in a taxi by 6, arriving at 06:45.  Of course the border did not open until 8; not as I had hoped, but as I had expected.

So the first border.  My exit from Congo was delightfully easy.  After changing money in the 20m of no-mans land, I entered Angolan immigration for my first encounter with this country’s officials.  Bureaucratic describes it quite well.  Being asked for my itinerary, I noted down my planned route through Cabinda, DR Congo, Angola and into Namibia, sufficient information I reasoned.  No.  'Give me your whole route.’  Hmm.  Ok, so... Birth ... etc ... UK, France, Spain, Morocco ... etc ... Congo, Cabinda ... etc ...  UK, work, death, afterlife.  Quite why all this information was necessary, I don’t know, but I played along.

All processed, I went in search of a taxi to get across the 150km of Cabinda to the border with DR Congo.  Now the warnings I’ve received about the cost of Angola rang true when US$100 was quoted.  Not once, but by each and every driver I approached.  100 bucks?!!  Wow.  Negotiations with Alex got this down to $50, on the condition that he were to drive quickly.  Alex obliged.  150km/h when the roads permitted (and they often did because roads here are of European motorway/autobahn standard) meant that, although we got stuck in appalling traffic in Cabinda City, we reached the border at 11:30, two hours after leaving.

Border number two had me present my (full) itinerary again to the Angolan officials, this time with a map of Africa accompanying our needless discussion.  When finished, I traipsed across no-mans land again, this time in search of the DR Congo immigration.  What a pleasant, if not swift, encounter.  The chief welcomed me, signed me in and wished me bon voyage.  My blatant English tongue meant one of the guards fetched his colleague Blaise to see me.  Scott and Roger had told me about this man and of his generous spirit.  They are good judges of character.  We chatted for 10 minutes about my friends who had gone before me and what I needed to do to get to Soyo the same evening.  He changed me money from his own pocket at the honest and profitless rate of $10 – CDF9,000 and sent me one my way with instructions to a boy to get me on the correct bus to the town of Muanda.  Oh, and his phone number and email address in my pocket in case of any troubles I might encounter.  What a nice man.

And so I stepped foot into DR Congo.  Any attempt of mine to explain here this country’s heartbreaking recent past would be insufficient, but I suggest you spend 10 minutes asking Google what it knows; it is a tragic tale of immense bloodletting and one which the rest of the world is largely ignorant of.

I spent only two hours or so in this vast country.  Nevertheless, this time will be remembered fondly.  After an hour’s minibus journey through deep sand with views across an endless landscape, we arrived in Muanda.  A ten minute walk to find my next car to Yacht saw me befriend a delightful character named Matieu who greeted me in English.  My reply of ‘bonjour’ was, I guess, force of habit, but the rest of our conversation was conducted in my language.  He is an English teacher.  We chatted briefly while he escorted me to the taxi ‘rank’ where he explained to the driver where I would need to go.  We shook hands and went our separate ways.  Bon chance mon ami.

3pm.  Yacht is where I would get a boat across the River Congo, a natural border separating DR Congo and Angola proper.  More paperwork, but straightforward.  Being herded into a small shack with five or more people demanding I empty my bag for customs reasons raised my senses somewhat.  I simply refused to empty all my belongings out in front of this group of very casually dressed men and women and one very definitely bearded woman with more facial hair than me, and I’m no baby’s bum – really quite off-putting.  The deadlock caused by everybody’s intransigence was thankfully broken by the appearance of a young man who was very definitely of official badge.  He very briefly searched my bag and sent me on my way with a wave.

$25 for the boat ride across to Angola – almost there.  In truth, this was to be three boat journeys – one to a DR Congo checkpoint where I would refuse another request for l’argent, one of many since leaving Pointe Noire earlier the same day; one to an Angola police checkpoint; another to the Soyo port.  The second of these stops saw me come as close to losing my cool as I have with any officials to date.

Being asked to empty my bag for customs/security checks by two rather shady policemen, I tiredly obliged.  Halfway through, their chief entered the hut and basically started to play with my stuff; he took a particular liking to the penknife a loving relative had recently bought me.  The glint in his eye and his I-have-power-over-you smile said it all – I would not be leaving here with that knife.  Communicating via my French and Portuguese (but not English) speaking boat captain, arguments ensued during which I demanded the chief’s name, rank and number.  One of the beauties of being in a setting where no one speaks your language is that you can say whatever you like and they remain oblivious.  I declared just what I thought of them and their corrupt little outpost in my most eloquent and embellished English until another boat pulled ashore.

Here my luck changed.  In stepped a fluent English speaking immigration official whose presence immediately lowered the tension.  We all went to sit under a tree.  I explained my situation – what I was doing in Angola, why I had the knife and why I was upset at my treatment which was at times unpleasant in its physical nature.  He listened in silence.  And then turned to the chief.  I don’t know what was said (I don’t speak Portuguese) but I imagine it went something like ‘he is a tourist, tourists carry things like this, don’t steal from tourists’.  His was obviously the greater authority and the chief returned the knife to me while trying to make light of the situation and shake my hand.  I neither shook his hand nor looked in his eye.  We left for Soyo immigration.

Arriving ashore at around 5pm, I sat patiently in silence until all the necessary stamping and paperwork was complete.  One guard gave me a bag of peanuts.  I told him that this was the kindest thing anyone had done for me all day and that if he didn’t understand what I just said, then I hoped he could at least grasp its essence.

I walked out of immigration at just before 6pm, exhausted but in Soyo.  Having to leave for Luanda the following day, my last journey of the day took me to the bus depot where I knew transport would leave in the morning.  The ticket office had closed by the time I arrived, but I would be able to sleep on the bus overnight if I wished, reserving a seat in the process.  I had arrived at a moment where a simple ‘yes’ would declare an end to my day, with all remaining problems vanishing into the fading light.  I said ‘yes’.
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