For a special treat this weekend we headed off to southern suburb Luanda Sul to sample the delights of Belas Shopping Centre. That you have to travel out of the city through heavy traffic to the only modern shopping mall in Luanda will give you an idea of what little there is in town by way of retail therapy.
My car is still in port, probably sitting in a warehouse while its customs paperwork languishes at the bottom of an official pile somewhere, but we will get our own wheels one day soon and when we do I want to know my way around. So whenever we go out with an embassy driver I sit in the passenger seat and try to memorise the route, but this is a challenge because I keep getting distracted by the sights and sounds we pass.
There are three things you see plenty of every day at the roadside. The first is women carrying large loads of goods on their heads: bananas, soft drinks, clothes, you name it they carry it piled high in a brightly coloured plastic bowl balanced on top of their heads. The second is young lads ferrying bulky items — refrigerators, generators etc — on home-made wheelbarrows made of forklift pallet planks and a car wheel. And the third and most entertaining are the street vendors: young guys who wait by the side of the road for the traffic to slow to a standstill — which it does every couple of minutes — then leap into the narrow channels between the lanes to hawk their wares to the bored and frustrated motorists.
Here’s a list of just some of the things I’ve seen these blokes selling:
- air fresheners
- jump leads
- wooden beaded car seat mats
- toilet seats
- “Converse” training shoes (four pairs strung round the neck)
- Cans of Red Bull
- Larger-than-life replicas of The Mona Lisa, complete with gilt frame.
It really is quite entertaining to see, although I don’t think we’d ever risk actually buying anything.
We finally got to Belas and did the usual thing of wandering through the mall browsing the stores. Clothes and shoes are very expensive here — I couldn’t find a pair of men’s shoes under $200, and believe me, you wouldn’t be seen dead in the ones I did find. Some consumer electronics (computers, phones, cameras) are expensive too, but oddly some accessories such as memory sticks and Wi-Fi routers are the same price as in the UK. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, so you just have to keep your eyes open and when you see a bargain, snap it up.
It was at this point that I spotted the Movicel shop. Angola has two mobile networks: Movicel and Unitel. Unitel is the biggest but Movicel is the one that has the more prominent mobile broadband offering, called MoviNet. Although we have internet connectivity in the house it does go down quite frequently, and so because I need to be online for work I’ve been thinking about getting a 3G USB dongle for emergencies. So I went in, fully expecting the usual language difficulties and having my stock phrase, “Eu nao falar Portuguese” at the ready. I spotted the USB dongle in a display cabinet and approached the counter, prepared to deploy my pointing finger, but the assistant actually spoke quite good English so all the questions I had saved up came pouring out: “How much is the modem? Is it contract or Pay As You Go? What are the speed options?” The assistant explained that you have to purchase the modem for 8,800 Kwanzas (about $95) then you have to buy a month’s data access for another 8,800. The speed? 150Kilobits per second, which is about the same as good old ISDN. I asked about the faster options as advertised on their website: 300k for 13,600 Kwanzas per month or 1Mb “Mega” for 19,950 per month (over $200). The assistant explained that right now the 150K option is the only one available, because they’re “still building the network”. I went outside to find Karen and Abigail and explained that I was going to go back in and buy one and they followed me back into the store, but when I approached the English-speaking assistant for the second time to announce my intention to purchase I was told that their systems were down, so they couldn’t process any payments, and could I come back “this night”? I couldn’t come back “this night” so I had to give up for the day. I’ll have another go next week.