Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The long road from Angola

Welcome back to Africa.  The sights, sounds and smells were almost overpowering as I left the ship some 24 hours ago.  While standing at the bottom of the gangway, two police officers walked up and began shouting, with one hand on their guns.  They gestured down the key and made it pain that we had better start walking.  I glanced back up at the ship.  One of them caught my eye and shook his head slightly, to let me know that retreat to safety was not possible.

So we yelled up at the ship that we were leaving and walked away.  They escorted us to a caged-in area and left.  We were to spend the next few hours here.  Eventually, the rest of the crew met us here and we waited.  The dust was thick, the air hot and oppressive.  Cranes, trucks and ship engines a constant background roar, punctuated by yelling from the guards, police and dock workers.  As the day grew short, the mosquitoes rose up from the shadows to feed upon us. 

Lectures on malaria and dengue fever still fresh in our heads, we broke out the mosquito spray.  The cage filled with the smell of lilacs and old lady perfume-the bug sprat here smells like anything but and is generally so sweet-smelling I would swear it attracts them.  Finally, we had some movement and small encouragement.  Someone collected our seaman's books.  Later they handed back some passports and then finally, asked us to walk through a door into the enclosure behind us.

Thus began a series of paperwork, stampings, form-filling, stapling, ripping and standing in line.  Get a form from one official, fill it out, walk a little, get the next official to stamp it so the one after can read it, then send you to another that might rip it in half, or staple it to yet another form.  It was bewildering and most men we faced were stony-faced and just begging for the chance to send you back to the cage for more waiting.

Suddenly, I stepped through another door and found myself standing in the middle of ruined section of the building.  No walls, or ceiling/roof.  Just posts and some rubble.  Deathly skinny cats chase each other in pairs, everywhere I look.  Parked there were several vans and small buses.  It was evident that the drivers were there to take us either to the hotel, or airport.  Some of us were flying out and some staying the night.  We could not get them to understand "hotel", or "airport" and so had to wait.........................................Until somebody who could translate got the message across and nine of us crammed into the first mini van.

Luanda is the capital city of Angola. I've been to a few capitols and this place?  It is the capitol of wreak and ruin, stench and suffering.  You can imagine what we drove through.  I can try to tell you but I know before I write that I haven't the words.  Nonetheless...

The first thing you notice is the dust and how incredibly thick it can be in places.  It defies gravity and hangs in the air like smoke.  Dirt covers everything and you know you're on the edge of a great desert, it hangs like a horrible weight over the city.  People on scooters, motorcycles and bikes wear masks. Then you notice the devastation.  It is difficult to discern where the dust leaves off and becomes ruin and rubble.  Everywhere I turn is broken brick, shattered stone and dirt in layers, piles, straining to break free and become the dust.

As we leave the quay and barrel through the dockside section of the city I am at once appalled, fascinated and sickened by some of what I see.  The roads are not roads, but mor resemble what you might expect an obstacle course built for tanks might look like, with no exaggeration.  In fact, I'm sure a tank driver would give pause before attempting some of what we negotiated in an overloaded minivan.  I wonder if this place was recently a battlefield, but am not up on recent Angolan history.

Amongst the ruins are little bits of rusty tin, or a cave-like openings I know to be shelter and home for the multitudes of people that line the roads and adorn every flat surface we pass.  Thousands and thousands of them.  Most seeming to be just loitering and waiting for something, what I can't imagine.  This is a place of misery, or so it would seem.  Dead, burned out cars line some of the streets and dot the alleys we weave through as short cuts.  Music and car horns blare constantly, only changing in pitch as we approach or they receed in our wake of dust.

At one point we stop and an impossibly tall woman in a golden wrap and gold-beaded headdress smiles at me from the curb. She balances an enormous basket made from what appear to be reeds, on her head.  Her eyes follow me as we pull away.  Later, I see streets lined with people selling food, cooked over small coal stoves on the ground.  The food is laid out on what appear to be burlap sacks, or maybe some sort of mat.  I can smell the food as we pass.  It doesn't cover up the smell of human waste and rotting things that hangs heavy in the air, no matter where we go.  I see feet sticking out from an overturned garbage can.  Later, I see a man sitting on the ground.  His only arm is draped over a dead animal of some sort, laying next to him.  It was big and white and looked bloated to the point of bursting.

Suddenly, the road turns to pavement and drops well below ground level.  We could now be on nearly any highway in the US.  Formed cement sides, two-lane cement highway.  I mention this and everyone but our mute driver affirms this.  The road climbs back up and we're back amongst the garbage and squalor.  In this part of the city, I see less roadside dwellings and the people are dressed better, or at least more colorfully.  The music is louder.

A few minutes later we arrive at the airport.  It is utter chaos.  It has the look and feel of a riot.  We are met by an agent, who brings a representative of our charter flight and a couple of angry-looking guys who are at least a foot taller than me.  They give us more forms to fill out.  One of the guys stands behind me, with his hand pressing into my shoulder and tells me what to write in each blank space. He pushes hard on my shoulder while explaining.  Then, we wait.  And wait.  I swear I felt a few rain drops, then look around and decide it couldn't be rain, therefor I don't want to know what it was.

Our engineer uses hand signals and mime to ask a guy holding a beer, where he obtained it.  Nearby, a small stall sells Cristal Beer for 2 US bucks a can.   A few of us head over and buy a couple to hand out, or pass around.  Before we finish the charter rep screams for us to run and follow her.  We drop the brews, grab bags and haul ass.  Only to stand in a very long line at the ticket counter.  Eventually, we get tickets, stand in another line to have them checked, then head to Customs and Immigration for the second time today.  Stamped, chopped, ripped, checked off and scribbled on, our growing pile of paperwork stays with us as we finally clear into the boarding area.  There, we find the balance of another ship's crew already drunk in the bar.  Full beers cover every table.  We grab one to drink while standing at the bar, and each of us orders 10 more beers.  We have to open them at the bar, ourselves, then grab them by the handful and squeeze them onto the tables.  I meet my old opposite, whose now on this other ship.  He introduces me to a couple of my colleagues I've not yet met in my 10 years of travels.  One of them also has 10 years under his belt and we compare boats, finding out we just missed each other on several occasions over the years.

Twice, a woman comes over and makes me put out my smoke into a beer bottle.  She does this periodically with everyone, but everyone just lights another.  I'm not sure why.  Anwyay, a lot beer and smokes later the rep comes and once again whips us into action, yelling her head off.  Both crews panic, trying to drink all the beer and finish their smokes.  She stops me as I try to get by her with a smoke and a beer.  She takes the smoke out of my mouth, puts it in hers and grabs the beer.  I run, only to end up in yet another line.  Later, one more line and we're out on the tarmac, walking to our plane.  It was still damn hot, but getting late at night.

On the plane we find out that air traffic control has lost our flight plan and are delayed for nearly an hour.  The two crews mix and mingle.  Several people bought liters of duty-free booze and we all get glasses of ice from the not too amused stews.  Most get pretty wasted and eventually pass out.  I drank a bit of nasty vodka, then washed down a couple of muscle relaxers with some Jack and coke.  Before I pass out, the girl in front of me, trades me a tall glass of shitty, iced white wine for a couple hits off my nicotine inhaler, the Gun Chief gave me for the trip home.  I doze on and off till Tunisia, then pop fully awake to find I have a melted chocolate Santa clutched in one hand.  I know not why.

Tunisia was uneventful, as was the flight to Frankfurt, Germany.  I've got 20 minutes to get my bag, clear customs and immigration, switch terminals, get ticketed and board my next flight.  This would not be humanly possible in any other country in the world.  However, there is something to be said for German efficiency and that would be that at times, it can be glorious. My bag and I made the connection.  I was stunned.  I'm approaching Iceland, as my plane follows a great circle, heading to Chicago.  Despite being stoned and exhausted, I can't sleep.  I keep closing my eyes and dropping my book on the floor, but I can't sleep.  I daydream of the images I saw in Luanda.  Twice, I opened my eyes to find myself gagging on non-existent dust.  The guy next to me is giving me strange looks.  Well, he was.  As I type this with my reading light on, he's rolled over and turned his back to me, to avoid the light.  Another 5-6 hours and I'll be back on home soil:)

Update:  Made it Minnie, only to find out my airport's been closed for 2 days due to weather.  My flight is still listed as open, but I expect when I leave this food court, I'll find it canceled like all the others.  My plan is to get a hotel for the night, then fly to Green Bay and rent a car, driving the last five hours. Been there already and got the fucking T-shirt...

Update 2:  Yes, my flight was canceled at 11pm.  Got a room at the holiday inn, went down to the bar to wash down my malaria tablet with cheese sticks and two beers.  The barmaids were friendly and were genuinely interested in the fact that I'm a pirate.  However, the drunken idiot next to me babbled incessantly about machine gun-toting crackheads that will invade our shores unless the Geologists of the country stand tall and unite in the fight to eradicate waterborne diseases.  I don't know what the fuck he was on about and beat a hasty retreat to my hotel room after the second Guinness.  Hotel bars always seem to have one absolute fucknut.  Oh yeah, before I left I asked the barmaids to go wake up the poor Asian fellow who passed out in his booth, snoring.  His wallet and cell phone were on the table and drunken idiot was eying them up.  Round two opens tomorrow at Minnie Airport...

Later folks.


Macoosh said...

somehow, i don't know why, my work page blocker is letting me sign on and comment. which i'm thrilled about because i wanted to be sure to tell you this was an excellent and captivating post.

of all the both horrible and beautiful images you described, for some reason, waking up w/ a random chocolate santa was my favorite part. mostly because i'd love to know the story as to how it got there. :)

glad you're (almost) home. enjoy it!


Jay said...

Jesus! What an ordeal. Glad you got through all that unscathed though. Fascinating post dude.