Friday, August 29, 2008

Week 4: Kisama National Park & Luanda

Aug 23 – 29; 08

Well, we had an early start on Saturday morning to make the trip out to the National Park. We had booked a four –wheel-drive car (& driver) to take us there & then pick us back up on Sunday, but we didn’t really know what size the car would be. We were a bit concerned about the 4 of us (Bill & I, Marek & Jo) and the driver & our tents etc all fitting in – so we packed lighter rather than heavier. As it turned out, the car was quite roomy – so there was plently of room for the four of us & all the gear. What we hadn’t expected was that we had a security guy go with us as well as the driver (not quite sure why – maybe they don’t allow the drivers to be in the cars by themselves outside of the city – which the driver would have been on the return trip?)

Anyway, despite having to turn back for Jo’s papers (legally you need to carry papers all the time), and a long & dusty detour due to road works, we arrived at the entrance to the park in good time. That’s when the good road stopped & it was 49km of dirt track (hence the need for the 4-wheel drive). We weren’t really expecting much other than a bumpy ride, but within about 5 minutes, we had spotted the first monkey and after that there were a series of antelope bounding across the road in front of us! It was so exciting! Heaps of birds (mostly hornbills) as well. We arrived at the headquarters around 11am & got our gear deposited next to where we would camp (we were the only tents). We had a toilet block close by (& even better, a shelter with lights for cooking our meals in!) & just the most stunning view! We were camped up on a plateau overlooking a river valley below. The surroundings were baobabs (the most spectacular of trees) and surreal cactus trees – the grass was brown (it is the dry & cold season now) but down by the river, it was incredibly green (mostly reeds & papyrus we discovered later). The inner part of the park where we stayed is fenced in with electric fence (but we saw lots of antelope & birds on the “wrong” side of the fence).

We had arranged to go “on safari” with the park ranger in an old army truck they use for the purpose, & went for a walk down towards the valley after lunch. We saw & hear d lots of birds, & a 50cm lizard that moved way too fast to get a good look. We returned in good time for our safari – but other people staying there obviously wanted to go earlier, as Bill & I discovered the truck being loaded up a good half an hour earlier than the time we booked. Bill ran off to collect Jo & Marek while I held the back seat of the truck for us. In the end there were at least 14 of us plus the driver in the truck as we set off. I don’t quite know what we were expecting to see – we all knew the park had been decimated of big mammals & a rescue mission (appropriately called Noah’s Ark) had flown in pairs of various species to try to restock it. Teachers who had visited before had seen lots of antelope & zebra I think – the elephants remained mythical creatures (although we have seen them on TV). What we weren’t expecting to see within 10 minutes was giraffes! And baby twins! It was so cool!

After the giraffes we saw about 6 ostriches in the distance and then as we drove around the park for several hours, numerous antelope of various kinds, heaps of birds & more of the stunning scenery.

When we got back to camp (after about 3 hours on the “road”) we saw a troop of vervet monkeys around the restaurant. Vervets are uniquely distinctive – in the words of my guide book, the males have a “powder-blue scrotum”.

The restaurant had NOTHING vegetarian to eat of course, so we cooked our own meal - & Marek & Jo did the same. They had neat little alcohol cookers so we had a great meal – with the sun going down around 6pm & the temperature dropping rapidly with it. We were very grateful for the shelter we were cooking in.
But the cool night made for a great night’s sleep & Bill & I got up just at dawn to go for a walk. The dawn chorus was amazing & with a bit of luck I hope to attach a small sound file to this email that Bill recorded to give you an idea of what it was like. We walked for about 3 hours – right down by the river & the only animals we saw was a large black monkey (not sure what kind – possibly an Angolan Black & white colobus) and a squirrel in the euphorbia tree cactuses. Lots & lots of birds!

We came back & had breakfast & then lazed around admiring the view waiting for the driver to come to pick us up. We didn’t see nearly as many antelope on the way back as we did on the way in, but what we did see was a big group of giraffes again- real close!

On the way home (no detour this time) we stopped at a scenic lookout – we had seen patches of amazing looking erosion scenery from the road on the way to & from Rio Longa, but hadn’t stopped, so we took the opportunity to do so while it was just the four of us. We were in for a big surprise – we thought it was just a small area, but when we got out of the car, we could see it stretched for ages along the coast.

The only bad thing about the whole trip was that when we got home, just dying for a shower, there was a power cut & no water for an hour! However, as you can imagine, we had such a great time & we plan to go back often! It was very reasonable to camp ( they had small air-conditioned “units” which looked very nice but were expensive at US$200 a night). We spent less than that including our food & the safari trip.

The rest of our week has been somewhat more routine & less exciting than baby twin giraffes, but the week has flown by, despite Bill having to attend 2 (& me one) parent information evenings. Monday morning saw the arrival of a huge container at the school – we are still in the process of unpacking it – it seems to date from orders made around 2006! There aren’t many teachers left from that time to enjoy it! It’s kind of like Christmas, just a bit weirder as we try to make sense of some of the orders (eg the maths department has got even more American text books that none of us like!). We splashed out at the supermarket tonight & bought ourselves a decent-sized Chilly bin (cooler) to take with us when we go camping etc.

This coming weekend we are going to the beach to check it out (the surf beach) & school will be 3 days only due to elections next weekend.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Week 3: School starts

Sat Aug 16 – 22; 08

This was our first week of school & not much else has happened for us. On Saturday morning I went with a bunch of women from the school to the “fabric market” to buy some African textiles. (for some reason Bill wasn’t so keen to go)We were warned it was an “unsafe area” so I’m afraid there are no photos. When we got there, it turned out that the market was closed and what was left of it was just out on the “street”. There were only about half a dozen people selling lengths of fabric, and local women were shopping for fabric also (this was no tourist market). I was a little disappointed – Indonesian/Malaysian style batik is all the fashion here, but as I’ve just come from there, its NOT what I wanted. However, there was fabric from the Ivory Coast (the main fabric centre of Africa) so I bought some of that. The fabric comes in 6 meter lengths, two of the ones I bought had contrasting fabric as part of the package (mini versions of the same pattern).
I’m hoping that the quilters out there might be excited by some of these, as I was keeping them in mind as I was buying! They are all very dusty – not suprising considering they were laid out next to the ground!

I have to say that it didn’t feel unsafe, although it was very crowded (it was a general market area) and the sight of the day was a petite woman/girl carrying a HUGE suitcase on her head through the market!

As it has turned out, that was my only excursion of the week – we spent the weekend preparing for classes & the rest of week has gone in a bit of a blur with preparation & just general exhaustion – we’ve been in bed before 10 every night. We get lunches made for us at school, so we have been having lots of salad at night. The TV is finally sorted (we get South African cable) so we have been blobbing while eating dinner. So we have actually now seen some of the Olympics.

I am proud (and somewhat relieved) to say that I have survived 8 lessons of year 5 (nine year olds) maths as well as all my other classes. I’ve never taught kids that young before. The kids are great & Bill also has got great classes. He is teaching the IB chemistry classes, as well as some chemistry & general science to the slightly younger kids. His youngest age group is year 9 which is my oldest year group!

We needed to change our return flight this week & that (of course) wasn’t as simple as making a telephone call. Bill was given this afternoon off to go down to the Ilha to the British airways office to pay for the change in flights and pick up new tickets. It’s the first time he’s been there in the day time - his comment “it ain’t Miami beach” isn’t particularly illuminating as to what it IS like.
Bill says…..
Ok, picture Skelmersdale (a housing project in West Lancashire) 20 years after the nuclear war, with Wimpy just setting up the first Burger Bar on the beach after the zone has been declared “safe” (Note – the landmark for finding the British Airways office was next to Wimpys) At the British Airways place Raul was very cool and assured me the dollar was priced just great for our needs and I (and Mr Francis…obviously my boss) would be well pleased. In fact the printing machine had run out of tickets and the “finance department” was “ out to lunch” that’s Raul’s words. I said “whatever”. Like you do and was assured that the tickets were sorted, any problems would be his and the receipt would be there for me to pick up anytime, “if I forget to take it to the airport”. It cost me 190 US$ but I absolutely know he is right. I have a handwritten note to explain it all to the authorities. Raul is my man. Actually we will go back first chance we get and pick up both our new tickets and the receipt! I’m not going through Luanda airport with a handwritten note!

Tonight we are packing for a camping trip to the National Park –we are optimistically hoping to see some elephants (they were flown in from neighboring countries at great cost after the war to try to restock the park to what it had been). We are going with Jo & Marek & they are bringing the cooking equipment. We don’t quite know what to expect, but it will be great to get out of Luanda again & even better that we may see some large mammals.

So, it feels as if we have been here MUCH longer than 3 weeks, the internet is working really well now (got my fingers crossed so I don’t jinx it) & we are fast settling into what will probably be our weekly routine for the year. We have our apartment cleaned every weekday – which is very nice to come home to. Bill has been able to skype (internet phone) his family, including the boys, so things are looking up. We are so far from the city that it feels quite isolated here – but the 2 minute walk to school each day is a bonus! We have one more full week of school & then the next two weeks will be short as the school (as is the whole country) is closing down for the parliamentary elections – it’s a huge deal for Angola, so maybe you’ll even catch some of it on TV where you live!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Week 2: Settling In

Aug 9 – 15; 2008

Saturday morning we got a bus with Jo & Marek into the city. The plan was to be dropped at the old Portuguese fort on the waterfront, walk around a bit & be picked up again later. We choose the Lebanese restaurant we ate at last weekend as our pick up point – which turned out to a bit too adventurous as the streets aren’t so clearly marked & we didn’t have a great map. We walked along the “marginal” or main waterfront – lots of beautiful old colonial buildings (mostly banks or government offices), many of which are under restoration. The waterfront itself has just been developed – it is possible to walk all the way around on a big wide footpath. There is a huge curved sandbar that hooks around to form a partially enclosed bay – this is called the “ilha” and was our original destination for the day. Jo & Marek talked us out of it as they said it was just beach & a few restaurants with not much to see. It is a night-time area so we may go back for early evening & explore then.

We really enjoyed our walk (we separated from Jo & Marek when they decided to go into the museum at the fort) & felt very safe. We saw lots of cool buildings & took a few photos (not so many – we thought we’d play it very conservative on our first trip). Just when we were starting to feel a bit lost in getting to our meeting point, we found Jo & Marek & together we were able to ask for directions & a very nice man took us to the street we were looking for.

The trip in had taken us about 30 mins – the trip home MUCH longer as we got jammed in traffic. However, we felt that it had been a much better thing to do than sit around the apartment all weekend.

Funnily, that’s precisely what we did on Sunday – had a lazy day at home. We sorted out the cupboards a bit better & feel a bit better adjusted to the small space. Bill tried to watch a soccer match with Man. United, but it wasn’t on any of the sports channels. Our TV isn’t up & working yet either, but that isn’t causing us any grief at all.

The rest of the week has kept us busy with school – meetings every day & trying to sort out rooms ready for school on Monday. Supplies are a bit frustrating – Bill was disappointed by the chemical supplies & it is obvious the kids haven’t done much lab work. Everything (we hope) has been ordered, but of course school supplies have to be shipped here in Containers. The port is full of ships waiting for their turn at coming in to unload (a year or so they can wait..). Once they land, they then have to wait for customs (an indefinite time). The school currently has FIVE full containers at various stages – some in boats, some waiting for customs etc, dating back more than 18 months. We heard that one has just been cleared so the container should arrive early next week (transporting the container to school is the last challenge). No one knows what will be in it but everyone is hoping it will be stuff for them. A container holds a heap of stuff so I hope there is something for everyone.

Some stuff has been a surprise – no shortages of basic (& not so basic) stationary supplies, although the school has run dry of laminating film. Bill & I are keeping quiet about our personal stash. New textbooks are in containers but there appears to be no limits to printing or photocopying (although there are only 2 photocopy machines). Certainly while we wait for stuff to arrive, some things will be a challenge.

The school is also in the process of building a new classroom block which should be open in about a month. Although neither of us will be teaching in the new building (remember the furniture for the building is also in a container somewhere), the reassignment of rooms will make thigs better for both of us – at the moment there are 4 science teachers using 2 rooms, only one of which is a lab. When people shift over, it will free up a room (that Marek & I are currently sharing for maths) which will be converted to another lab. I will get a room of my own (I have 4 rooms and a different room for homeroom!)

The apartments for teachers are still making progress (although they may also be waiting for furnishings in a container). We definitely have settled better into our place & although we will be very glad to have a bigger place, I think we will cope until we do.

There has been a blurr of social events this week as the returning teachers had mostly all returned by Monday. So there was a welcome back barbeque on Monday night, another barbeque to meet members of the board on Friday night and on Thursday afternoon there was a “gardeners” vs “teachers” football match. The turnout for people wanting to play soccer was big enough that it looks as if it may become a weekly event. Bill moaned about getting too old to play but he plays 100% effort all the time and as he hasn’t played since early June, he felt tired! Others were complaining of stiff muscles etc so I think he is doing OK. After the soccer match 2 buses of teachers went down to a bar at the ilha – the sandspit with the bars & restaurants on it. The bar was a marine sports bar (big game fishing I think) and it was attached to a marina. The view of the city at night was stunning (but we didn’t take cameras as we didn’t know how safe it would be). It was a fun night & we caught the early bus home so it wasn’t particularly late either.
So – a much less “exciting” but more “normal” week for us. The returning teachers are friendly and are a good mix of ages and nationalities. We are slowly getting to know everyone’s names. Despite living so close to the other teachers living on campus, it has the feeling of being private, even when we eat our meals outside. It feels as if we are developing a routine to our life.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Week 1: Arrival & Introductions to school & Luanda

August 2 - 8, 2008

We flew into Luanda airport on the British Airways flight from London Heathrow, arriving in the early hours of Sat 2 August. Stamping of landing cards & immigration went smoothly & a lot more quickly than we had expected. Bill’s lack of a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate was craftily got around by us going up separately to get the landing cards stamped & both of us using my card.

Our suitcases took time to emerge but ALL arrived – intact as well. By the time the last bags appeared on the carousal, Tony B the head of school & the school’s security chief had arrived in the baggage hall, soon followed by Tony M, the high school head. Their presence allowed all the trolleys to be managed more easily (Jo & Marek had more bags than us) & more importantly, we were able to avoid customs & with remarkable ease we found ourselves in the car park to be greeted with cold drinks & 3 buses to transport us & our bags.

We met another returning teacher: Carolyn – head of primary, and a newly arriving family Kim & Tomi with Ella (4) & Sami (1) (the ONLY children on the plane). The trip out to school from the airport took about 20 mins at 6am & once arrived, we got our bags & our keys & were introduced to our new home. It is a one bedroom apartment with a kitchenette on the dining room/ lounge. It is small – it clearly is designed for one person & we are struggling a bit with space. However it has a patio facing a garden & we had a celebratory bottle of champagne outside watching the early morning birds. We named everything – “raggety edged butterflies” “squirrel birds” etc. The garden faces into the “fishbowl” – a large baobab tree that is in the middle of a lawn that all (or most) apartments are arranged around.

We slept for about 4 – 5 hours & then walked to the nearest supermarket to change US$ to Kwanza ($1 = 75 Kz) & managed to spend about $75 on what felt like virtually nothing. We spent the afternoon unpacking & went to a welcome barbeque held in school grounds that evening. There we met several other new teachers as well as some of the staff at school.

Sunday we went to the bigger supermarket in the morning – we did a big shop & spent almost all the $200 we initially changed. We looked around the mall next to the supermarket but everything looked very expensive. That took way longer than possible to imagine – the check out queues alone were about 30 mins long. Then, after dropping off our shopping, it was back in the buses for a sea-side restaurant (without much for vegetarians). It was nice to sit & see the sea & watch all the people in the area. It was obviously a popular place to go for well-off locals. There were a family of little girls playing in the sand who were very cute with their hair in braids.

On Monday we had a trip into Luanda finishing with a meal in a Lebanese restaurant. The traffic was pretty bad in places & we cut short some of the itinerary due to the kids in our bus. The views out the window of the bus were fascinating – people trying to sell all sorts of things to passing cars, women carrying impossible loads on their heads with babies tied onto their backs with bright African fabrics.

We drove past a soccer stadium & a game must have been just about to start. Not very far along we meet crowds of youths running & chanting through the streets (supporting their team). They were accompanied by several army trucks full of soldiers carrying guns, but it seemed pretty peaceful.

There is construction going on everywhere – including the roads themselves.

Tuesday morning we all piled into 2 buses & headed south for the highlight of our orientation – 2 nights at a lodge on the “long river” or Rio Longa. It took about 2½ hours to drive to the river – past spectacular scenery & then about 30 mins on a boat to the lodge – seeing 2 crocodiles along the way!

The lodge was great – Bill & I had our own “hut” complete with warm shower & bathroom. All meals were provided & despite no electricity, it was blissful. It was so nice to see some nature & get away from Luanda for a bit. The lodge was virtually on the coast, facing a lagoon full of water lilies & water birds (& crabs) & the beach itself was an easy kayak across the lagoon. I had a field day with my camera & Bill & I went out stalking birds by trying to silently glide up to them in the kayak.

The beach also had crabs galore & it was just incredibly scenic. It was too cold for me to go swimming, but some of the others did. We did a boat trip along all the mangrove trees (looking for more crocodiles, but finding only kingfishers & fish eagles).

We drove back to Luanda on Thursday (more stunning scenery along the way) & found ourselves a bit more comfortable in our apartment.

Friday was a day at school – a tour, and a 2 hour talk by a doctor about Malaria & other health issues. It was very good. We also got info from the HR lady & received our medical insurance cards etc. Nothing particularly exciting, & to be honest teaching still seems a million miles away!

We are hoping to be able to move into a bigger apartment around Nov/Dec time & certainly I think we can cope OK in the mean time. Bill has met some people who are keen about being in a band, so even that is looking positive at the moment. The biggest drag is inconsistent internet connection, something I really hope gets sorted out soon. At least one or other of us seems to be able to get online at the moment, although never both of us at once! We went out & bought a mosquito net after the malaria talk so that will allow us to turn off the air conditioning if we choose. We have found many things we need (no lentils yet) so are starting to feel that life will be OK here (& despite the high cost of things, we still expect to save a heap of money each too).