I’m so Excited (And I Just Can’t Hide It)
There was no doubt that Angola was the country I was most excited about on this June 2022, four-nation trip to clean up Southern Africa. I’d finish mainland Africa on this one. I was on the 10-yard line, with only 14 countries to go until I would complete all 193. Angola would be 180.
I was super-enthusiastic about seeing Angola for a few reasons: mostly because I adore visiting Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) countries. I dove head first into Portuguese in my 20s after my first trip to Brasil, minoring in the language at college while simultaneously doubling down with some self-teaching. When I was 30 I moved to Brasil, which was a fantastic, real-life education in Portuguese. So visiting countries that speak the language – outside of Portugal and Brasil – is always a special treat for me. It stirs the senses and scrambles the brain (in a good way), to be so far away from Portugal and Brasil, yet see, hear and read Portuguese. It’s hard to explain, but I love it.
Angola would be the very last of the Lusophone African nations – five countries I had to memorize in many a college Portuguese class. Never in my life (at least back then) did I have any idea I would one day actually see them all, in person. For good measure, here they are: Moçambique, Cabo Verde, Guinea Bissau, São Tomé e Príncipe and, of course, Angola!
This was also a trip that had been previously canceled due to the pandemic. Flights in and out of Angola aren’t simple. I’d finally secured a great route with points, via Lufthansa – only for it to all go up in smoke when you-know-what happened in 2020. So this trip was overdue!
I have fond memories of my college geology professor (Hey, Mr. Reynolds!) telling the class stories of his trips to Angola as an oilman – fascinating stuff and somewhat harrowing. I recall Mr. Reynolds detailing anecdotes about arriving in Luanda and being “watched.” He described it as a pretty wild place, including one time he was sure he was being kidnapped by his cabbie. At the time, never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I would actually be here one day.
Finally, in an interview many years ago, I remember Janet Jackson telling me that Angola was her favorite country in the entire world to visit.
All of the above combined, and I was just so jazzed to finally be coming to Angola, albeit a very short trip due to scheduling.
TAAG Team, Back Again!
To add to my jubilation, I was flying in and out of Luanda on Angola’s national airline, TAAG. I’ve dreamt of flying on TAAG for years. I remember once connecting through Johannesburg and being so excited just to get a glimpse of the red, orange and white TAAG airliner parked at its gate. With a yak on its tail (I later learned the animal is actually a palanca), the jets look straight out of the 80s (or 70s even), comparable to the old school look of Suriname Airlines. Just charmingly and authentically retro.
I totally nerded-out on the three hour and twenty minute flight from Joburg to Luanda, pinching myself as we boarded. Something inside me was worried that this was all too good to be true – that the flight might be canceled. My two-night visit to Luanda had no wiggle room for flight cancellations. I did not have complete faith in the airline whose website didn’t even show this flight. I’d booked through Expedia (which breaks my rules about booking flights via a third party), but had called TAAG first, to verify the flight. I was pretty proud of myself actually, for succeeding in confirming that the flight did indeed exist, all in Portuguese, with the gentleman at the TAAG call center months ago.
My whole point here is just how extremely grateful I was to actually be on this flight, as air travel in Africa, in general, is always such a roll of the dice. But this was really happening!
I enjoyed the flight overall. The male flight attendants wore suits complete with red ties adorning the TAAG logo in teal.
Lunch was interesting: an orange plastic box containing a small turkey sandwich, bread, chocolate cake (Yes!), and sumo de tutti fruti: mango, guava and papaya juice. I ordered a free beer just because I loved the Cerveja Cuca label, and, well, just being on this flight was cause for celebration.
By the time we landed, I’d made friends with my seatmate, a young lady named Lea Komba. She was Angolan and spoke excellent English. I asked her many questions about Luanda and she was happy to answer all of them.
Fun fact: There were about a dozen brancos (whites) on the plane. I wondered if they were Portuguese and what they might be doing in Angola.
Once we landed, it took a full 90 minutes to exit the airport. Immediately after deplaning, everyone had to take a Corona Virus test and wait for the results before heading into the terminal. The process was surprisingly efficient. I was proud to execute the entire process todo em português.
Once inside the airport building, I was sent to the visa office with three other foreigners: an American, an Indian and an Australian. I had applied in advance and received an “authorization letter” beforehand, but this was not the actual visa. I’d pay for and receive it now. 25 minutes and $120 later, I was finally on my way. I should note the gentlemen in the visa office were pretty friendly. Only a few years back, a friend of mine had been jailed on arrival and sent home the next day for not possessing the right visa. I was happy that I’d had better luck. (You can read Ryan’s story HERE.)
Out on the curb I grabbed a cab to the hotel. When I asked how much—before getting into the car—the driver informed me it was a “metered” ride, so that put my mind at ease. Imagine my surprise when he asked for 100 USD when we arrived at the hotel just eight minutes later. I’v attended this rodeo plenty of times before, and, without hesitation, put my training to use.
First, I firmly let the driver know that he was ridiculous, that he was attempting to rob me, and the $100 fare was a non-starter. When that didn’t convince him, I told him to wait um momentinho as I entered the hotel lobby and asked the front desk for help. They sent a staff member outside to talk to the cabbie. The hotel employee should have been much firmer, but just having him there with me surely helped me avoid getting stabbed. Finally, I took photos of the license plate and company logo on the car and made damn sure the driver saw me doing this. By now the conman was just ready to leave – he was already back peddling, hemming and hawing about seeing me take photos of his license plate. We settled on 30 bucks, which was probably triple of what I should’ve paid, but I just wanted to end the ordeal. Coincidentally, my buddy Ryan had a similar “incident” with a driver in Luanda – his story HERE.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Even when the cabbies tell you the fare is metered, at minimal, ask for a ball park estimate – an over/under of the expected fare, and confirm it, verbally and visually with your phone’s calculator, then take a screenshot. These crooks will use an app on their phone as the “meter,” which is clearly part of the whole scam. Taxi drivers abroad continue to be notorious shysters – this is why I don’t feel bad that ride share apps are making these crooks obsolete in many cities. (To be fair, I know there are more honest cabbies than the bad apples…but there are indeed a lot of bad apples!) Don’t be lazy – triple confirm the fare before getting into the taxi! Even I don’t follow this advice most of the time, and I paid for it in Luanda. I’m going to get better at following this rule starting now!
My introduction to Luanda wasn’t what I’d hoped for, but I refused to let the toxic taxista ruin my trip. By the time I was checked in it was nearly 10PM. I threw my bags down and hit the hotel restaurant before they closed. I enjoyed conversing in Portuguese with the waitress. The food was okay – it wasn’t the traditional Angolan cuisine that I’d come for, but we’d get to that tomorrow. Lights out for now.
The sun was shining brightly the next morning in Luanda. I was immediately approached by a vagrant not 60 seconds after walking out of the hotel’s front doors. I saw the man begin to follow me in my peripheral so I sped up the pace and even changed course. He was not deterred, finally catching up to me at the corner to force a conversation. He was actually pretty nice, but I knew better than to entertain a lengthy dialogue with any stranger on the street. His name was Chiso and when it was all said and done he had worked in a request for me to bring him something back from the grocery store. This was not the last time I’d be accosted by strangers here – we’ll discuss this more, in detail, later. Now, let’s see Luanda!
I caught a peek at the bay before heading into the city to check off some of the sights I’d bookmarked on my GPS. First, I passed by the “eternal flame” at Monumento do Soldado Desconhecido and the main post office – a beautiful old building that boasted classic Portuguese colonial architecture. I would’ve gone in but a small crowd and a banner that read em greve (on strike) blocked the entrance.
I admired a beautiful old igreja (church) and soaked in the sights of Luanda’s fabulous collection of old buildings – both the classic colonials and (at one time) swanky art deco low-rises of the 30s-50s. All of these gorgeous works of art—some crumbling—were set in front of a backdrop of a very modern skyline of glass and steel high-rises. It was quite the contrast.
Along with the buildings, I admired the people. The city life was pretty fascinating here. There was no shortage of young men with portable shoeshine stations and women grilling bananas with nuts. I would’ve attempted some up-close people-photographs, but I wasn’t that comfortable just yet – still a little on edge from the previous night’s taxi adventure and the morning’s awkward conversation with Chiso. I’d warm up to the people soon enough though – and just like many African nations, it only takes a smile and a Bom dia (or Bonjour, depending on your location) to disarm even the most stoic passerby.
And Angola was certainly a nationalistic place, with banners and billboards of the president’s image all over the place. Flags too. I wondered if the flag’s design of a machete and half of a gear was meant to resemble the hammer and sickle…it sure looked like it.
I enjoyed a small pastry and latte at a French bakery called Tracadero – so far zero for two when it came to trying actual Angolan cuisine. I managed to meet the owner before I moved on – surprise, Lebanese! I’ve written before about how I am so fascinated with the infiltration of Lebanese businesses throughout Africa – so interesting to me.
Next, it was over to Largo da Independência (Independence Square.) Even more stunning than the giant statue of Angola’s first president, were the colorful mosaics that surrounded the monument on its circular base – it was all very North Korean!
I’d continue on to Largo das Heroínas before circling back in the direction of the sea.
On the Radio
If you don’t know already, I’m a radio DJ and program director. I’ve been in the business since the age of 15. Besides travel, radio is my other passion. I often enjoy touring the studios of radio stations abroad. As luck would have it, trotting down Avenida Comandante Gika, I stopped in my tracks as I came upon the giant Rádio Nacional de Angola complex. State radio headquarters? What a sweet surprise. Now this I just have to see!
I introduced myself to the woman at the security gate as a radio guy from Los Angeles, asking if it would be okay to just pop my head in and grab a glimpse of the lobby. She told me no, but by some miracle an English-speaking employee in a suit soon approached me as I rolled out my introduction again. This time it worked, and within minutes Carlos Julio was not only escorting me into the building, but right into the studio and onto the airwaves. I was suddenly a guest on Carlos Julio’s English speaking “community” show. We spent about 20 minutes on the air together talking music, life and, most importantly, what the heck I was doing in Angola. I thought it was interesting that Carlos Julio spoke perfect English, but with an Australian accent. João Paulo de Sousa made an appearance to deliver a news update. He and I spoke in the lobby later and I’ll never forget his kindness and enthusiasm. These are people I’d love to have a beer with next time and get to know better. The whole thing was just incredible and mind-boggling really, and proof that if you want to see something that is behind a fence or a locked door, it never ever hurts to simply ask. You never know!
Before leaving, I was passed off to Margarita Dos Santos, a young journalist who interviewed me for her Portuguese-speaking news program. I’m embarrassed to say I would’ve probably earned a C or a D had my Portuguese teacher(s) been there listening to my responses…maybe an F! While I’ve mastered generic salutations and ordering from the menu, I’m afraid I crashed and burned as the subject of an in-depth interview todo em português. It was nothing short of a disaster. Mrs. Truran and Bezerra (minhas profesoras): Sinto muito that I failed you!
Vamos Fazer Almoço (Let’s do Lunch)
On the way to lunch I stopped in for a sumo de maracujá (passion fruit juice) at Praçinha de Tia Fina before finally arriving at FungeHouse. This was one of a handful of restaurants I’d been recommended by Luandan journalist Claudio Silva before coming to Angola. He’d told me that FungeHouse was the place for a traditional plate.
I let the garçom (waiter) recommend a traditional dish and ended up with a smelly bowl of fish with sauce and spinach leaves called calulu. Once I got past the odor (to be fair, fish is usually stinky) I enjoyed it. The side of stewed vegetables was tasty, but the white mound of stretchy starch that looked like mashed potatoes was a no-go. One half-bite of this ball of rubber called funge, and I was out like Mr. Wonderful and a bad deal on Shark Tank. You could patch a leaky roof with this stuff! The fresh lime juice was probably my favorite thing at FungeHouse. When it was all said and done, I was happy I’d manned up and at least tried real Angolan food. I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t.
On the way back, my curiosity got the best of me as I wandered into a Geeley car dealership. I’d never heard of the brand and was intrigued. The salesperson, Fernando, welcomed me in and showed me a couple of the models. The Chinese-made cars looked cool and I wondered why they hadn’t made it into the US yet.
Next, I passed The Iron House (museum), popped into a grocery store for a maracujá soda and admired the giant Angola National Bank before arriving at the Money Museum. Sadly, it had already closed for the day, which was a real bummer. I’m not a museum guy whatsoever, but I was really looking forward to this one.
A Fortaleza (The Fort)
I stopped back by the hotel to freshen up, once again being instantly approached when I exited back out onto the street. A man name Cuba followed me down the block, doing his best to reel me into a conversation. He backed off once Chiso popped out from who knows where. Cuba quickly realized that this gringo had already been “claimed” and stood down. I cut the convo short and told Chiso I was going to a fortaleza (the fort) and he let me go. I was sure I’d be seeing him again.
The entrance to the fort was just around the corner, mere feet from the hotel, and secured by a gate and soldier.
Pode entrar?, I asked, and was given the all clear to proceed up the hill. I was now inside a military complex. I wasn’t quite sure what was on- and off-limits, so I headed straight for the fort – its entrance too, manned by a gate and soldier. I’m pretty sure the guard told me the fort was closed, but then he proceeded to wave me in anyway, which was certainly nice. I’m not sure what was happening but I proceeded in before he changed his mind.
Up top, I had the fort all to myself. I walked around its perimeter, along towering walls with canons on top, and took in the views of the bay and city below, glowing in gold under the sunset. Inside the fort, a guy yelled something at me – not sure if I was overstaying my welcome, so I didn’t stick around. Out front, I passed a collection of planes and armored vehicles. My favorite part though, was the brightly colored mosaics of soldiers with guns, missiles and planes charging ahead. Like the tile murals at Independence Square, this was so very North Korean.
While up top on the fort I spotted the enormously tall Mausoleum of Agostinho Neto, which I’d seen on the way in from the airport but hadn’t been able to get to today. I was very tempted to take the mile walk north to see it, but I’d be pressing my luck with the impending darkness. I didn’t want to be bopping around town after sundown, especially knowing my “friends” would be waiting for me outside of the hotel. So instead, I opted for a visit to the mall next door to check out the food court.
On my way up the escalators, I stopped on the second floor to look at a new car on display. The Jetour was another Chinese carmaker that I’d never heard of. I wondered how many other car brands were out there that I never knew of.
This mall was nothing too special overall, however I can’t remember a shopping center with such spectacular views in my life. I grabbed a smoothie from the top-level food court and stepped outside on the balcony to admire the bay and city below – it was a beautiful scene and a nice way to end the day, and the trip overall. The entire front of the mall was glass and I could see nothing but the sea in front of me as I descended down the escalator.
I should note there were six or seven fast food places on the top level and what looked to be like a really nice sushi restaurant – upscale with seating both inside and outside on the balcony. It would’ve definitely been a great dinner spot if I had even one more night in Luanda and a date.
Before leaving the mall, I spent some time inside the second-level, upscale grocery store. I needed water for the night and I never turn down a chance to eat mousse de maracujá, which I quickly spotted in the cooler. I grabbed a few things for Chisco, too: some oranges, a coke, chips and cookies.
Sure enough, I’d run smack dab into Chiso on my way back to the hotel, like clockwork. He and his friends were overjoyed that I’d brought them a bag of goodies. You would’ve thought it was Christmas as they riffled through the bag like children unwrapping gifts. It actually made me really happy, too. He asked how long I was staying. I fibbed and told him a week, which would alleviate any pressure he might have had to ask for anything more from me that night.
The next morning I slipped into the shuttle and headed to the airport. I was in the sky by 10:15. I’d had a nice visit to my fifth and final Lusophone African nation. I packed a lot in for just one day. I felt satisfied.
If You Go
A few notes for any of my dear readers planning a trip to Luanda…
First, the hotel. There aren’t any hotel “chains” in Luanda – no Hiltons, Hyatts or Marriotts…not even a Holiday Inn or Best Western, which I found odd. Upon further research, there wasn’t even a McDonald’s of KFC** – something I’m extremely intrigued by. Luanda certainly is a big enough city. I wonder if there’s some kind of political embargo I don’t know about, leading to a scarcity (or non-existence) of American franchises*). To be clear, it’s not that I was looking to dine at Dairy Queen – I just find it strange that I saw uber-random American brands like Shakey’s Pizza in Ulaanbaatar and a Nathan’s Famous in Kyrgyzstan…yet not so much as a Starbucks here in a big city like Luanda. I’m getting off track.
*I later discovered an IHG brand InterContinental hotel online.
**Correction: There are indeed KFCs in Luanda. Thank you @JMCerdeira!
I chose the Hotel Continental (not to be confused with the InterContinental) partly because of its rating, but mostly its location. It really was in the perfect spot, right next to the mall and fortress, and right between the city and the little strip of land called Ilha Cabo (that, unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to explore). It was an older hotel whose updates really hadn’t succeeded in covering up its dated bones – but the place was clean enough and offered a couple of English TV channels, so I was satisfied. The ocean view really made up for all of the other shortcomings. The old elevator was the kind whose outside door swung open and had no inside door at all – not even a safety cage to pull across. The staff was okay, although as mentioned earlier, it would’ve been nicer for them to be a little more helpful with my taxi “incident.”
My least favorite part about the hotel was the number of vagrants hanging directly outside its main doors and in the plaza in front. It was nearly impossible to enter or leave the hotel without being approached. There must have been between 15 and 20 vagabonds present at all times. I should be clear that I was never actually threatened, but the constant attention became a little unnerving.
I should not leave out that I’d read warnings about the dangers of exploring the city alone, as a foreigner. Even one of the staffers at the Luanda radio station said, after my visit, in a text message, that I was a “brave American citizen” for “walking upon my soil freely.” I get the feeling the businessmen and women who come here are with security 24/7 while outside their hotels. However, for every caution I read, there were experienced travelers that remined me Luanda was like any other big city and to simply practice common street smarts and avoid walking after dark.
My credit cards—both Visa and Mastercard—never worked once! I’d tried them four times: at the bakery, FungeHouse, the mall and at the hotel. Thank goodness I had enough cash on hand to pay my $428 USD hotel bill. So yeah, bring cash! I should note that the ATMs at the airport didn’t work, but the ones in town thankfully did.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: It’s always a good idea to have a grand in crisp, new hundred dollar bills safely tucked away in your bag. American dollars are good in most parts of the world and you never know when you might get into a jam and need some cash.
Oh, and Angola is known as the most expensive country in Africa. I’m guessing it’s because if you’re visitor, you’re most likely an oil or diamond person. With all that oil and all those diamonds…well, they probably figure they can get away with charging way too much for things.
The flight booking situation was one of the strangest I’ve seen: The TAAG website’s schedules and booking tools didn’t match up with the flights that were actually available. I used Google Flights to find the actual flights to and from Luanda and my only option was to purchase them via Expedia. As I mentioned in the beginning, I’d called TAAG just to make sure those Expedia flight dates and times were correct, since they didn’t populate for me on TAAG’s website. With my tight schedule, I couldn’t afford to get it wrong.
Would I visit Luanda again? I’m not sure. I’d like to check out the exclave of Cabinda – a territory of Angola that’s completely inside of The Republic of the Congo. That would probably be pretty neat to check out.
Just one more African nation left. (Did you know there are 54 countries in Africa??? It’s huge!) See you in Madagascar next month!
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