Angola trip report, things to do and see in Angola

 

Angola

Angola emerged from the shadow of 500 years of Portuguese rule and a 40 years long civil war that ended in 2002, leaving the country littered with millions of unexploded mines. In addition, the visa is not easy to get and the country is as expensive as hell so it's very much a niche destination for tourism.

The first time I went to the Angola embassy, in the waiting room they had a big screen TV playing Angolan rap videos, when a scene showed a guy in a hot tub with two scantily clad girls, I did a double take wondering whether I was indeed in an embassy. It was not a straightforward process but in the end, it took about 8 weeks to sort out the visa.

When I got on the plane to Luanda, it was filled with mostly oil workers. One of them asked me if I was "onshore or offshore". My reaction visibly flummoxed, he explained it's oil exploration lingo, offshore meaning an oil rig at sea, onshore being on land. I replied I was just going there for sightseeing. He laughed "no seriously, why are you going to Angola?". He found it so unusual that after we landed, he handed me his email address, requesting I fill him in on how the trip pans out.

 

Lubango

Lubango is a city in the south, at an elevation of 1,800 metres. It was my first stop in Angola, the guesthouse I managed to find was on the outskirts and whilst hiking up to get a bird's eye view of the city, I came across two ladies who gasped at seeing a rare tourist. They asked me to help them with some bathroom plumbing work on a house that was being built, then invited me to join them for dinner after. One of their friends at dinner kindly offered to show me around the next day.


 

The Mumuilas

Located in various areas in Cunene, the Mumuilas (Mwilas) are an indigenous group who have preserved their culture thanks to their deliberate avoidance of modern civilisation. When I went to their village, I offered two big bags of rice and flour as gifts. The chief told me to go get some boxes of alcohol instead.
The tribal chief, called the soba, had four wives. When he took me inside his house he had a poster of a blonde girl. When I pointed at it, he just gave me a big grin.
The Mwilas live on subsistence agriculture and livestock keeping. Women coat their hair with a red paste made of crushed red stone, and sport thick neck braces that come in different colours depending on marital status. Men, by contrast, wear a simple loin cloth paired with a dagger. The Mumuilas believe that the spirits of their ancestors can either work for their good or for their bad, so will sometimes make animal sacrifices or have a diviner perform in a dancing frenzy {for their ancestors}.


 

Tunda Vala

This volcanic gorge had breathtaking views from atop, on the way down there was a group of Angolans having a party by the river, with a makeshift DJ and loudspeakers. They had their drink bottles immersed in the river, that way the cold water kept them chilled. I was invited to join in, although my lack of portuguese made it difficult to communicate.


 

The Mucubal

Scattered along the road to Huila, the Mucubal are semi nomadic pastoralists living as cattle raisers and engaged in agriculture. They don't eat fish because a legend said that one of their chiefs was taken to the sea by the Portuguese and never came back, leading them to conclude that fish must kill men.
Mucubal women are famous for a rope string tied around their breasts which is used as a bra. Married couples are not allowed to talk to each other in public if the wife hasn't had children.
A man can have several wives and is also allowed to sell a wife, if he does not get along with her or even just to earn money, as a woman can be worth 2 cows. For a first marriage, a woman can be worth 3 or 4 cows. Cattle is the ultimate expression of wealth for them. A Mucubal is both richer and more important according to the number of oxen he has.
They got me to try some natural hair lotion made out of dirt, cow dung and other herbs. I don't think my hair felt any softer, but it sure stank for the rest of the day.


 

Namibe

Namibe is a little seaside town. I was initially going to take the bus there from Lubango, but at the bus station I jumped in with a guy in a 4x4 going the same route who was hustling for 3 passengers to make some extra cash. He turned out to be an army general. When we arrived in Namibe, he organised for his brother to show me around for a fee, I asked for the exact price, he kept telling me it would be cheap and negotiable. Never trust army generals. After we met his brother, they drove me outside in the desert, parked up and said they wanted $45 for their tour guide services, which was a bit extortionate. However considering I was in the middle of nowhere, I did not put up much of a resistance.
They took me to see a plant, welwitschia mirabilis, which only grows in the Angolan desert. It has that unpronounceable name because it was discovered by an Austrian botanist named Friedrich Welwitsch. Apparently, he was so overcome by his find that he knelt down next to it and stared for hours! The plant core was used as food for people in earlier times. It's apparently very tasty either raw or baked in hot ashes. Afterwards, we went back into Namibe, to explore the picturesque little town and beach with rusting hulks.


 

I took the bus back from Namibe to Lubango, the driver dropped me off at the wrong street, it was late at night and most of the streets had no lights, so I spent over an hour asking around trying to find my way back, only to be given different directions every time (no one spoke English). One guy even kept following me. Eventually, I found the place but to get there I had to cross a small wooded area in complete darkness. Using my dim cellphone light to guide the way, the final hurdle was crossing a huge pool of sewage, the heavy rain had overflowed the drains to the surface. With no turning back, I tried to think of my happiest memories as I walked through that stench and I said goodbye to my shoes.

 

Luanda

I caught an internal flight to Luanda with Angola Airlines. Interestingly, they line up all the hold luggage {after it was already checked-in at the desks} in front of the plane just before boarding and you have to physically show them yours otherwise it does not get loaded on the plane. When I got to passport control, the officer drew a big 5 with his finger, making it clear he wanted money. I thought 5 Kwanzas is such a small amount ($0.04), I was actually more surprised. I handed over a 5 note he started laughing, saying he meant 5000 (~$40). I just kept persistently mumbling the words "estudante, estudante" (ie student) until he eventually let me through.

I met a lawyer on the plane and after I landed, since I didn't have a place to stay in Luanda, he told his driver to take me to his friend house. The next day, we checked out the city which was gridlocked with traffic, and the outskirts where many relics of the civil war such as rusting tanks and unexploded mines are scattered. True to the rumours, Luanda was very expensive, I paid $13 for a meagre tuna sandwich, I ate that sandwich very slowly.


 

I also saw tons of oil tankers parked off the coast. For a country so rich in oil, poverty was rampant and widespread. All because the billions of dollars of oil money go straight into the pockets of corrupt politicians while the rest of the country is starving.
The irony in all this is that the politicians are not even bothered to spare some money to build a refinery, which means Angola exports crude oil, only to re-import it later at an additional cost after it's been refinsed.

For Angolans though, there's darker clouds brewing. The current president, Eduardo dos Santos, is old and suffering from prostate cancer. There's a lot of speculation on who might succeed him which is making some senior government officials nervous about their future roles. Many people I spoke to are afraid that once the ever-elusive president dies, old rivalries will resurface and trigger a power grab which would mean yet another civil war. For now though, the period of regeneration continues.

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