Saturday, August 28, 2010

23 - Presidential Hiccup

My plans to go from Luanda to Soyo at the mouth of the Congo, where there's some major off-shore oil drilling, have gone for a burton. The guidebook says there are buses, but both expats and locals say the road is terrible, the buses never arrive because they break down, and those that do take forever - and then some. Well, memories of a scheduled 10-hour truck journey from Guinea to Guinea-Bissau that took 40 hours a few years back are rooting for discretion here, so I'm flying straight to Cabinda, the little Angolan enclave separated from the mother ship by the mighty river and a sliver of the Democratic republic of Congo.

View Luanda to Cabinda in a larger map

The national carrier TAAG has managed to get itself banned from going anywhere near European air space because of its 'spotty maintenance' record so I think I'll give them a miss. The expats say Air26 is the best company to take. The lady of the manor is driving me to Luanda airport for $35, but her van is boxed in by a dozen other vehicles in a crazy quilt maze on the dirt path behind the Soleme Hotel. It takes about 100 turns to finally manoeuvre us out onto the road, but as it's Sunday there's none of the usual horrendous gridlock.

Last views of Luanda on route to airtport

Soldiers, though, are already on street crossings and overpasses for the president's return from attending the World Cup opening in South Africa; expats say they close the whole city when he passes by. Fortunately his triumphant entry is some hours away.

The domestic terminal building is OK but the floor where the check-in clerks sit is littered with refuse – half empty food containers, plastic water bottles, reams of paper, and the clerks' chairs are in various stages of brokenness. But the Air26 clerks turn up right on time at 10 a.m., processing people efficiently - and no, none of them knows why the company's called Air26, and not Air27 or Air36. One says because it's an even number. Well, so is 36, but I let it drop.

Close to Agostinho Neto 'space needle' memorial
The goon at the Migration and Foreigners Service check desk, however, has every intention of dropping me. You need a special letter of authorisation to go to Cabinda, quoths he. But your ambassador to the UN said everything was OK for Cabinda, lie I. No, you can't go, requoths he. Is he looking for a 'gasosa' (bribe)? At this point another goon comes over and asks why I want to go to Cabinda. To look around and get out of your freaking country and on to Pointe Noire in Congo, quoth I. He must think ‘freaking,’ spat out loudly amid my Portuguese, means magnificent, because he smiles and tells his co-goon to let me through.

The information screens screens in the departure lounge are not working, and every so often an employee comes round shouting out the next departing flight. This may sound stone age, but it's a damn sight better than your regular public address system in the first world sputtering, squawking and crackling away in Klingon.

More views going south to airport
Our boarding time has already passed and suddenly the whole freaking airport has shut down. Passengers who already boarded buses to go to their planes are brought back. His Freaking Excellency is about to land on his victorious return from the World Cup. So now we're all stuck waiting for HFE.

After nearly an hour a gleaming all-white plane with three tail jets glides in, His Excellency's Air Force One. I'm tempted to sneak a verboten photo. The lady to my right won't cause any trouble; she's reading a book of prayers - currently one to Saint Bras – which I assume is to make up for the maintenance reputedly lacking with Angolan air companies. But the gent on my right is a hulking great soldier with a revolver strapped to his hip, so my photo remains in pectore.

HFE has apparently still not moved his arse out of the vicinity because we are still stuck half an hour later. Still, this also happens in the first world. Remember Clinton holding up everybody at Los Angeles airport while he got a perm aboard Air Force One? We finally depart about two hours late.

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