The letter from the Captain starts, “We know we are living in a changing world.” He talks about how Holland American is constantly monitoring security and continues, “some ports do present the possibility of more safety and security issues than other ports.” I thought this was the prelude to telling us we were canceling a visit to Luanda, Angola, especially after listening to the port lecture that warned us that this was a country with a high crime rate and great income disparities, and not to drink the water. It was not. It was a standard cautionary letter, much like Suzi and I got from USAID or the State Department before traveling to many of the places we worked.
But the fact that the letter came from the Captain and not the hotel director, that the port lecture was full of carefully worded warnings and that Lonely Planet only has 3 and a half pages on Angola, one of them a map and half of another a boxed paragraph headlined “Warning” puts Angola in a different class.
The Captain did end his letter asking if we are touring independently to file a “flight plan,” leaving our itinerary with guest services. The implication was that we really should take one of their tours, for safety sake. For several people it meant that they didn’t get off the ship. We decided to split the difference, take a morning tour and spend the afternoon out on our own.
But when it came time to book the tour we had the following disclaimer.
“Angola is a third world country and although this tour is a rewarding experience please be advised that it differs in all respects from the touring you will experience in South Africa. The coaches are basic and their quality can vary considerably. There are no formal guiding qualifications required for Angola: the tour operator uses local guides because this contributes to local recovery. Your guide will do his/her best but please keep in mind that the limited tourism here is part of your experience and bear with any language difficulties that he/she may encounter.”
Amsterdam was only the second ship scheduled into Luanda this year. Next year there are only three, and was clear that this was a big deal. We learned later that there was interest in our visit from the diplomatic community. The US Embassy sent three representatives to the ship to watch over things. According to Barbara, our “destination guide” this was the largest influx of tourists at one time that Luanda had seen.
This became obvious as soon as we stepped off the ship. A reporter for Angola National Radio stopped Suzi to ask her where she was from and her impressions. “Uh, I just stepped off the ship.” Angolans had set up a crafts market just outside the gate of the port in the square in front of the Presidente Hotel and a TV crew was there talking to passengers.
It was evident that our guide was not chosen for his local tourism knowledge but for his excellent English. He was more easily understandable than one of the Afrikaner guides we had. When we got to a place he read from a placard. At one point he was reading to us about the Gothic church we were looking at. The church was clearly baroque. He realized he had mixed up his cue cards, apologized, and started again. He was personable and assured us that if we stayed with him we would not be arrested for taking pictures.
The bus radio played “Radio Tourist” which sounded like Radio Havana in the 1980s, a man and a woman reading lines off a prepared script punctuated with local music. (The only reason to listen to Radio Havana was the music.) However the lines they were reading were actually interesting. They were honest about poverty, income disparity, bad infrastructure, slums, traffic and crime. They advised us to travel in groups and not take shortcuts. They also talked about the music and how it was a mixture of African and Brazilian, much of it inspired by Carnival. The music was hot and provided a wonderful soundtrack for the tour.
It was clear that the Angolans were worried about our safety. We had 8 comfortable 16 passenger air conditioned mini buses. We had a pilot car with guys in yellow vests who jumped out at cross streets to stop traffic and who also acted as crossing guards for us. There was a police motorcycle that ran up and down the convoy making sure that no one cut in. He liberally used his siren. At the back of the convoy was an ambulance. I don’t know what they expected but they were playing it safe. (When we got off the ship and saw two ambulances we were worried. A parked ambulance still sitting at the pier after the first people have gotten off is a signal that someone on board has died. In this case they were waiting to accompany tours.) At the end of the convoy was a police SUV filled with armed cops. They really weren’t taking chances. The interest in our safety extended to the market. There were a lot of police there too.
The port lecturer told us not to take pictures of the police, but these cops smiled and encouraged photos. It felt odd. I’ve always resented those diplomatic motorcades that tie up traffic. Now I was in one. Perhaps it was because of the diplomatic interest and oversight our visit had.
These first pictures are of the Iron Palace. It was designed and manufactured in the Studios of Gustav Eiffel and was destined for Madagascar. The ship carrying it was wrecked on the Skeleton Coast in Angola and the parts of the building salvaged and erected in Luanda. Because it was an all steel building it was, like the Iron House in Maputo, unbearably hot. It fell into disrepair, especially during the civil war and is now used for concerts and tourist activities.
The Igreja de Senhora de Nazare (The Church of Our Lady of Nazareth) is not Gothic, as the guide first read to us. But it has beautiful blue Portuguese tile work.
The Igreja de Senhora Los Remedios has a Gothic alter, which I was not able to get an acceptable picture of, was built in 1719.
The Saõ Miguel Fort was built in 1575. It houses the military museum. While its ramparts are impressive I particularly liked the blue Portuguese tiles of African scenes inside the buildings. There is a new Socialist Realist portal.
These are street scenes. Notice the mannequins are “white” but the figures of the mannequins have a decidedly bigger rump than American or European mannequins.