Sunday, February 22, 2009

Week 26: Fossils & an Impressive War Memorial

Feb 09 – 15, 2009

For those of you who think we never teach a five day week, you’ll be pleased to know that this was actually a full working week. In fact, we even worked Friday evening as well as chaperones for the school dance. I must say, it did feel like a long week!

We had our usual “catch up” day on Saturday, doing shopping etc with the plan being to spend Sunday retracing our steps from two weeks earlier to revisit the fossil cliff at Barra do Dande and then chill at the resort afterwards. Saturday evening we went around to Julie’s apartment to see “Slumdog Millionaire” (courtesy of the Thai pirate DVD industry).

We went by 4 wheel drive & left quite early Sunday morning. We had a good run through the city & out the north coast. When we took the turn off for Barra do Dande, we were rather surprised to find ourselves on the new sealed road for the entire time – in just two weeks, the road has essentially been finished!

We still needed the 4 wheel drive to get up to the top of the cliff for the fossil beach – by this time it was becoming scorching hot. We weren’t the only ones at the beach – there were some sea anglers under the cliffs to the right.

It was nice to explore along the bottom of the cliff by ourselves, looking out for fossils along the way. The place is just covered in them. We were able to go right around as the tide was quite far out. Bill was convinced he saw a turtle’s head a couple of times, but I was never looking in the right direction at the right time!

We found more clam fossils (the most common type of fossil there), a few more ammonite fossils – but in huge boulders, & what looks to me like fish vertebrae & bones.

It was while we were here that Bill started to have trouble with his new zoom lens – unbelievably it is playing up to the extent that it is almost unusable! It will still be under warranty in the summer when we get back to Manchester, but once again we are having to share my 300 mm zoom lens! This just makes me more determined to buy a new camera over the summer – both our cameras are about 4 years old & it would be devastating if one of them broke with months & months to wait till we get back to Europe again. Sharing a lens is one thing – sharing a camera wouldn’t be a happy picture!

By the time we were ready for lunch it was way too hot to sit in the sun so we found some shade under the cliffs at the other end of the beach. We sat & ate our buns & watched the birds fly down from the cliffs to go fishing in the ocean in front of us. We even spotted a common whimbrel looking for crabs in the rocks right in front of us. It flew past & when I looked at my photos I found one with the whimbrel flying over the sea, and right behind it I had caught one of the jumping fish that you see all along this coast. Not a great pic of the fish, but I was still chuffed with it.

After lunch we climbed back to the waiting car & then went to the resort on the other side of the fishing village & river. We were able to find ourselves a jango with table & chairs next to the beach. We had a couple of cold drinks, I went for a quick dip in the sea (which just shows how hot it was) & we sat in the shade & read our books. The sea was a little bit seaweedy, but the beach itself is clean with lots of shade. People were having their lunch outside under their jangos (which is probably just as well, as the restaurant is small). It is a great beach for kids – unlike Cabo Lebo, where the waves are just too big & strong.

There were grey herons flying past, & I took a few snaps, but Bill hardly picked his camera up (he was reading a very good book he couldn’t put down).

We left for home about 2pm & asked our driver if we could stop at the war memorial we’d spotted on the drive down. It was the memorial that had been pointed out to us during our history lesson at the Bende River bridge. From the road you can only just see a statue with a flag above the trees, but we thought it might be interesting to have a quick look.

The driver had never been to the memorial before, but it was easy for us to work out how to get to it, as it is right on top of the only hill in the area (it is where the Cubans had their guns positioned). There is a restaurant on the grounds of the memorial, but it wasn’t open. The guard was happy to let us in to look at the memorial (although he did seem a bit surprised – most people must combine their visit with a meal). I have to be honest, we weren’t expecting anything special – we thought it would just be a statue on a plinth & that would be about that, but we were totally impressed by the entire memorial. As soon as we got out of the car, we could look north and see all the way to the Bende River as clear as anything. (Actually, when I checked on Google Earth, I found it was only about 260 m as the crow flies (or the missile shoots)! What a strategic spot! No wonder this part of the war was won here.

The actual memorial consisted of a dedication plaque from President Santos on Nov 9, 2004 - just before Independence Day on Nov 11, which is about when this battle was fought.

The memorial inscription is written on a huge stone map of Angola: Monument to the Battle of Kifangondo, 1975 (this is the name of this particular area).

The actual memorial is a 3-D representation of the symbol in the Angolan flag. It has two semi-circular marble walls with the base for the statues in the middle, where the machete crosses the “cogged wheel” The star should have had an eternal light (but it was out). The “machete” is a pond, with some fountains at the back.

On the inside curved walls are 6 big bronze murals which apparently tell the story of the battle. Unfortunately, there are no explanations, so you need to already know the story (which we don’t) to be able to follow it fully. It clearly shows a big battle, prisoners being taken & people dying & the victory in the 4th panel. The fifth panel is a city street scene – people holding placards saying “death to the mercenaries”. The last mural looks like a war crimes trial, with a woman sitting at the front underneath the judges while a lawyer points at a person in the audience, who has a leg up on a chair.

Its hard to make more sense of it all – we think the man in glasses – in the main statue and in the first mural is the first president of Angola – Agostinho Neto. I was able to find out that the other man in the big statue is David Mois├ęs “Ndozi” – one of the commanders of the nationalist forces at the site. He is possibly also shown in the other murals, but it is hard to tell. The murals and the statues themselves are amazing works of art – they are very realistic & the artist (Rui de Matos) is very talented. (I read somewhere that he himself is an army general!).

Our driver got out & had a good look around himself, but we were virtually the only ones there apart from several couples cuddling under the trees in the grounds (it is obviously the place to bring your girlfriend). We couldn’t get over the fact that no one seemed to know anything about the place, yet alone recommending the visit. We thought it was really special.

After leaving the memorial, we had a good trip home (especially considering it was a Sunday afternoon) – once the new roads are finished, it will make trips north so much faster & easier.

Week 27: Illness Strikes

Feb 16 – 22, 2009

I’m putting this week as a tagalong after last week as it was so uneventful. It was another full week of school, with things gearing up to the fast approaching end of term & all the extra assessments that seems to bring.

The week was busy with the usual workload, but it took on a much more negative feeling as our health started to pack up. Bill got a series of nasty cold sores (which the medicine kept from getting truly horrible, but couldn’t stop from spreading), and then on Friday night scared both of us by cutting his thumb so badly that we thought he might lose the top. He refused to go to the doctor for stitches so we had to just make do with bandages & crossed fingers. We went into the city for pizza lunch on Sunday, but I started to feel quite ill on the way in & within 4 hours was well & truly miserable with a nasty cold or flu. Not a wonderful week for either of us!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Week 25: Angolan Rap Concert Cheekiness

Feb 02 – 08, 2009

This was another broken week as Wednesday was another public holiday - Armed Struggle Day – Feb 4 is the name of Luanda’s airport. We enjoyed taking the day easy & catching up with some school work. What a perfect working week: 2 days on, one day off, 2 days on & then 2 days off again!

It was Bills birthday on Saturday & we’d originally planned to go to Kissama National Park for the night, but then we heard that about an Angolan rap concert in the soccer stadium & Bill decided he wanted to go to that instead. It was headlined by a top Angolan rap star – Yannick from the band Afromen (which has been winning best rap awards here), along with a whole host of other local musicians. One of the teachers organised buying VIP tickets for all interested people (at a very reasonable 3500 Kwanzas each (US $50). It was a late afternoon start with the whole concert due to finish around 10pm.

Bill spent time on our Wednesday off to produce fake press passes for us both, so we could try our luck with getting close to the performances. We laminated the passes & put them into lanyards. Although we didn’t really know what real press passes looked like, we figured we could pass ourselves off as freelance photographers working for foreign magazines. It certainly was worth a try. We'd got backstage passes given to us in Malaysia, just by showing our cameras, so we knew anything was possible.

On Saturday morning I gave Bill his birthday present, (bought at Christmas time & kept hidden) – a new flash gun with built in diffuser & reflector. He’s wanted one for ages so it was an easy pick (probably too easy – I think if I’d asked him to guess what I got him, he’d have been right. The flash really was cool – it even had a wireless “slave” function built in – meaning that if he had it disconnected from the camera & another flash went off, it would too! The rap concert would be a great chance for him to “play” with it.

The bus to go to the concert left school at 3pm with the plan being to go to a local bar for a few drinks first & then head to the stadium & the concert about when it was due to start. Nzitu (Angolan by birth, but trained in the UK) had organised the day out & he took us to a local bar (but just where none of the rest of us had a clue). It opened just as we arrived & it was a pleasant place to sit for an hour or so.

Then we headed into the city for the stadium. Nzitu handed out our “tickets” – blue arm bands. When we were about 5 big city blocks from the stadium we encountered huge queues – people headed for the concert – with green & purple bands on. Our bus continued on & was able to drop us quite close to the VIP entrance to the stadium. We couldn’t believe the number of people we saw queuing in streets. We even saw scalpers selling the arm band “tickets”.

The entrance was nothing short of chaotic – huge seething crowds pushing to get in & armed security people checking on peoples arm bands. We finally entered holding our arms high in the air so the bands were clearly visible. Our bags were checked several times (not quite sure for what) but the cameras were no problem.

We’d entered in the wrong place – once we were inside the main stadium, it turned out that we needed to leave again to go into the VIP section – there was no way to get there from the ground level of the stadium. So we forced our way out against the crush of people coming in & then walked around the outside of the stadium to get to the VIP entrance. The arm bands allowed the security people to move people very quickly, & even the bags searches were fast & efficient. The VIP section ran along almost the entire left-hand side of the stadium, the seats closest to the stage were already all taken. We had to move along more than half the length of the stadium to find seats for our group (10 of us). The VIP area gave us seats (as opposed to grass for the people down in the stadium) and also free sodas & beer as well as some food – almost all of it unsuitable for vegetarians (we’d predicted that we wouldn’t get food).

Bill went off by himself (with his camera) almost right away – after about 10 minutes I caught sight of him again down in the main part of the stadium. The actual concert started about half an hour after we’d found our seats, & I could tell very quickly that I was never going to any decent photos if I stayed where I was. Bill wasn’t answering his phone (we discovered later he’d been trying to ring me too – it seemed that the reception in the stadium was intermittent at best). As I walked to the stage end of the VIP area, I caught sight of Bill right down in front of the stage. I wasn’t able to catch his attention & with him not answering his phone, I decided to try to join him. The problem was, I couldn’t find a way down to the stadium (I thought Bill must have just jumped over the side). So I exited the stadium again & backtracked the way we’d come in & joined the now even more frantic crowd trying to get in through the entrance gates. Fortunately I managed to get back in relatively easily, - right at the back of the stadium with the stage at the far end.

The track around the stadium wasn’t over crowded (unlike the pitch which was just packed with people), so I was able to move to the front easily. There was a line of police security blocking off the access to the stage, but I knew Bill had gone through it OK, so I pulled out my fake pass, put it around my neck with my camera in my hand, took a deep breath, and just walked though the security line as if I belonged. Amazingly, no one challenged me & next thing I was in front of the stage, tapping Bill on the shoulder! We stayed there for another hour or more – between the stage & the fence holding back the crowd. The security people were periodically spraying the crowd with a big hose of water – so people could cool down & drink. It was an outrageous scene – the crowd pressed up against the fence behind me & the singers performing in the lights & stage effects right above my head. Bill was having a blast as well – he even followed a couple of (real) photographers onto the stage – but they were all soon chased off.

The acts changed about every 15 minutes or so, but to be honest, we aren’t big rap fans & after taking several hundred photos, we decided we’d had enough & left the security area. Bill had come downstairs by some back staircase, so we went back up to where the others were the same way.

After the huge adrenaline rush of pretending to be something I’m not (Bill just seems to take things like that in his stride, but it terrifies me), on top of having no food, made me feel totally drained & tired, even though it was only about 8pm. Bill felt the same (well ravenously hungry anyway) so we asked around the others to see if anyone else was interested in going home then. 6 of us in total were ready so we called the driver to collect us – he said he’d be there in 10 minutes.

This is where the whole day fell apart – we left the stadium after about 10 minutes, and almost as soon as we were outside, a group of locals asked us for our arm bands. Despite these supposedly being non-removable, they managed to get them off us, so they could use them to get in themselves. But when we got to the street, there was no sign of the bus.

To cut a very, very long story short, the bus never actually arrived & we had to wait for the concert to finish & then wait another hour or more, before the driver actually turned up to take everyone home. Quite what happened, I still don’t know – however we did get home & despite everything, it wasn’t super late. We were still starving hungry though, so we had the fastest pizza on the planet (so fast it wasn’t even fully hot), but overall we’d had an excellent day out & we’d taken the chance on getting some outrageous photos.

We had a big sleep in on Sunday & another relatively quiet day at home, just catching up on things we needed to do.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Week 24: A Geological & Historical Excursion

Jan 26 – Feb 01, 2009

First let me get this out of the way – the lost bag FINALLY arrived – over 3 weeks late! It had been sitting in Amsterdam all that time. It arrived minus cheese (after that long, I’m sure it was very stinky) but disappointingly, it was also minus a heap of new clothes (in particular soccer kit for Bill), so it was hard to be too ecstatic about its final arrival. We are now in the process of trying to get some form of compensation – we are not holding our breaths!

Aside from the almost end of the lost luggage saga, the week involved Bill trying to catch up with classes he has missed – both teaching & the course he is doing (ESL in the Mainstream, which I did when I was in Tokyo). He also had soccer coaching – he hadn’t seen the boys for 2 weeks.

Monday was a real treat as it was a Public holiday – City of Luanda Day (although I heard later that it had been cancelled at the last minute) – whatever, it was nice for Bill & I to just have time together to catch up a bit on all the time he’d been gone.

Friday was early close & no school for any of the high school students as it was Parent Teacher conferences (by invitation). Because I had primary classes, I only saw a few parents, but the ones I did was worthwhile.

Friday afternoon & Saturday were quiet type catch up days, but Sunday we were booked to go on a Geological field trip with the Angola Field Group. They had put out a message about their trip on their blog the previous week & we’d written off right away to say we wanted to go. The only others from school who got in early enough was Jo & Marek – everyone else ended up on the very long waiting list.

On Saturday I got an email from Peter who wanted to post a link to a site he manages – the Aid Workers Network (there is a link to this on the sidebar). We exchanged a couple of emails – he was reminiscing about being in Luanda in 1994 & the difficulties of communicating with his family. Check his blog post about it at: The Road to the Horizon. It sure made me realise that living here now is much easier than it used to be, even quite recently. As you can tell from the pictures posted below, I spent the day playing in Photoshop.

Sunday morning was an early start to make our lunches & pack up our bags & get our bus into town by 6:45 am. We (Bill & I as well as Jo & Marek) had said we didn’t have our own car, so once we got to the meeting place, we were introduced to the people we were riding with.

Bill & I were lucky – we had a very comfortable back seat with Franco and Jamie – they had said they had room for 2 even though the back sat 3! Franco has been in Luanda for quite a bit longer than us, Jamie for about the same length of time, but it soon became apparent that Bill & I had got out & about much more than they had, despite them having their own car.

There was about 12 cars in total on the trip, but the first car developed engine problems within the first 15 minutes (radiator ran dry I think). Passengers were re-arranged & we continued north of Luanda to the bridge over the Bengo River. We had been this way before, on our way to shipwreck beach, but not stopped.

The geologist leading the trip, Tako, gave a very interesting talk about the importance of this particular bridge. The trip documents (a map & some background information) stressed how dangerous it was to try to go under the bridge due to possible landmines – so everyone stayed very close to the main road.

Tako explained how this stretch of road was where the Cubans arrived (on the Luanda side of the bridge) to help MPLA defend the only access way to the city from the north. They set up rocket launchers (which the Angolans didn’t know how to operate, but the Cubans did) on a distant ridge & were able to completely blast at all the soldiers with Holden Roberto & the FNLA who were backed by Zaire (& the west to stop communism spreading in Africa). The stretch of road along the bridge came to be known as the “road of death”. FNLA never made it past that point & the MPLA were able to consolidate their position. What was particularly interesting was that an Angolan man on the trip said that when he was a child, his family & village were on the FNLA side, but that with peace coming to Angola, all those animosities had been left behind – he said how pleased he was that Angola hadn’t gone the way of (the example he gave was Gaza & Israel).

Apart from the interesting history, there wasn’t much to see other than lots of swallows flying around the river (although they have spotted crocodiles in the past). It was supposed to be a toilet break, but with the threat of landmines off the main road, along with a paucity of suitable bushes & a group of men repairing a truck, I don’t think anyone took advantage of the (limited) opportunity.

From the Bengo River we drove to Barra do Dande – this is where we had ended up on our first attempt to find shipwreck beach. The road (being built by a Chinese construction company who have already finished a new bridge at the mouth of the Dande River) was much better than it had been all those months before, although still not quite completed. We drove though the fishing village & then up to the cliffs which are apparently all Cretaceous sediments. Tako gave us a geology lesson – much of the surrounding area is much later (tertiary?) but this particular set of cliffs are late cretaceous & he told us that there are quite a lot of clam fossils in the rocks as well as the occasional ammonite fossil.

We walked down to the sea & within 5 minutes of getting to the beach I had picked up a small rock on the high-tide zone that looked like an ammonite fossil. It was white crystalline & although it had a distinctive spiral shape, I couldn’t see any segments in it. When I finally caught up with Tako, who was way ahead with the front of the group, it turned out that I was the only person on the day to find an ammonite! We picked up other fossils as well & decided that we would come back another day as it was a delightful little beach with not a soul on it.

Tako kept a pretty tight time schedule, so we had a brief stop at the top of the cliffs with a viewpoint looking north & then back into the cars to drive to the first of the oil seeps. The first site was called Libongos – and just a few minutes walk off the main road took us into an asphalt quarry. The crude oil has been oozing out of the rocks, where all the light hydrocarbons evaporate in the heat, leaving the large bitumen residues behind. Layers of this has formed the asphalt. The black oil was literally oozing out of the ground & flowing down the vertical surfaces where the quarrying had occurred. The Portuguese had mined this for asphalt in the late 1700’s & were shipping it back to Portugal (probably for caulking ships). In 1820, 34 barrels of it was shipped to Rio de Janeiro for the same purpose.

There was one small “well” with liquid crude oil sitting just below the surface – but apparently it is not commercially viable to do much with this (to expensive to extract all the contaminants from it?). Bill had to pose for his photo – with a palm frond that he’d dipped into the oil (but he wasn’t the only one!).

The asphalt quarry crush the asphalt for purification & then it is used to improve the local roads (which were pretty appalling – so who knows what they would have been like otherwise!).

We drove on in what was now a very hot & sunny day to the second oil seep (I have to confess to thinking they all look the same) but this one had a richer source of oil (& was therefore that much hotter & that much more smelly & sticky underfoot). Despite the non-geologists rapid loss of interest, the geologists were pretty excited by it all – these are guys who have worked in the oil industry (I guess) for decades between them & only one had ever seen another oil seep. So actually they are something special. (But when you have seen one…..)

By now we were very hot (& hungry) so the next stop (but not before another car broke down) was just outside the town of Caxito. This town had a big canal running through its length – a wonderful resource in a semi-arid climate & we saw kids swimming, people washing & lots of clothes washing as well. Our actual lunch stop was overlooking the river that fed the canal, at a small waterfall (wide but not high). This was also a popular place with locals as it was shady & of course was an ideal place to swim. Lunch was great (we were starving by this point), Jamie had kept us going along the way by feeding us muffins she had baked – we really did have a lucky day.

After lunch we continued our big loop back towards Luanda, stopping at the abandoned Mabubas Hydro-electric dam on the Dande River. This was built in pre-independence times & used to supply Luanda with electricity. During the war it was sabotaged by UNITA and has never been repaired. Water rushes through it, but all the machinery is broken & rusted. It seems such a shocking waste of potential considering that power is often in short supply in the city. We climbed all over it & found an old tank close by which of course was the second “compulsory” photo opportunity of the day.

That was our last stop & the trip home was relatively quick (given the Sunday traffic) & uneventful. We were dropped back in the city where a bus was waiting for us to take us back to school. We got home about 6pm – a long but wonderful day with new places to revisit to explore at our leisure (& with less people around). Bill found out that Franco & Jamie were involved in the local Hash – so he will get information from them so he can join in the next time they run. So, despite being very tired, we felt we’d had a really great weekend.