Yesterday’s trip to the supermarket(s) was hot, busy, eye-opening, smelly, frustrating, and funny.
It began by meeting Dino, our new driver. Dino is Angolan and only speaks Portuguese (I only speak English), and I was glad he chose to greet me with the more conventional handshake rather than knocking me to the ground and licking my face like his Flintstones namesake.
I got into the passenger seat of Steve’s car and Abigail got into the back (Karen was at work). I should explain that this week marks the start of our transport arrangements stepping up a rung, in that we are sharing Dino as a private driver with Steve, another embassy chap, and since neither of us can go out at the same time Steve has kindly offered to let us use his car until ours gets here, after which we will still share Dino but each use our own vehicles. So, no more reliance on embassy drivers!
We swung out of the embassy compound and into the gelatinous mass that is Luanda traffic. In some places the traffic flows quite freely but for the most part you crawl along in first gear while some clown up ahead double-parks or decides to stop and let his passenger out in the middle of the road. There is so much traffic that the slightest obstacle such as these quickly causes a solid jam. It’s usually all over after a couple of minutes, but then you’re only twenty yards away from the next one. There are hardly any traffic signals and no road markings at all that I’ve been able to spot, so it’s a bit of a Wild West style free-for-all and everyone looks after No. 1 with a “I’ll try not to hit you, you try not to hit me, and let’s all try and get through this together” sort of vibe. Once again I forgot to bring LuandaCam out with me, and really regretted it.
We finally arrived at our first port of call: Jumbo. Jumbo is the biggest supermarket in Luanda and quite often there is a long queue of cars waiting to enter the car park, but today was relatively quiet. As you approach the main gate you have to run The Gauntlet of the Money Changing Women. I don’t know why women, or why there, or even why money changing, but that’s what it is. Gathered around the perimeter of the walled Jumbo car park are dozens of women who want to change your Dollars into Kwanzas before you get to the official Cambio inside. They obviously get a tiny cut on each deal and that’s their way of earning a living, but I can’t help thinking there must be easier ones. They have to congregate outside because what they’re doing is illegal and they’re not allowed onto Jumbo’s property, so after you’ve ignored their outstretched arms and cries of “Amigo! Amigo!” as you swing through the gates you get a kind of prison-in-reverse scene where you’re inside just trying to get a parking space while they run round to pursue your custom the only way left open to them — by reaching in through the railings.
Having finally left Dino in the parked car and found a trolley (these take Wobbly Wheel Syndrome to new heights) Abigail and I reached the supermarket entrance, which is flanked by two security guards whose main job seems to be to let everyone in and no-one out (there’s another door for that). Right inside is the little Cambio kiosk where a man in a darkened cubicle takes the Dollars that you slide under the window and changes them into Kwanzas, the local currency. You have to do this because that’s all they accept at the checkouts. Don’t even think about trying to pay with plastic. I changed $500 and got a rate of 93, so walked away with 46,500 Kwanzas. I hoped that was enough.
We walked around and filled the trolley much as you all do, only our choices were a bit different. The people at the fresh meat counter are helpful enough but again, Portuguese only so ordering is reduced to pointing and shouting a quantity. It kind of works but I end up always getting the same things because I don’t know how to order anything else. There is always plenty of beef, some pork, sometimes some lamb and almost never chicken. You can get frozen chickens but I suspect they’ve been frozen more than once, and the last one we bought was forming a puddle on the conveyor by the time we got to the checkout, so we only get one if we’re desperate. The fruit and vegetables are lower quality than you buy yet at least twice, sometimes three times the price, and that is the general rule all over the supermarket: you have to take goods that any European supermarket would reject yet pay double for them. There are exceptions — special offers stacked high in the usual way — but there’s no telling what bargains will be on offer on any given day. It seems almost random.
We paid 16,000 Kw for our trolley full of crap (about $175) and kept hold of the receipt because at the exit doors you have to stop and hand it to a security guard, who makes a show of glancing down the list then to your bags full of goods and back a few times before squiggling on the receipt in biro and letting you on your way. We loaded the car up, then headed off for stop number two. The A/C in Steve’s car is on the blink so we had to ride with the windows partially open, something we are not supposed to do but it was either that or swelter. We passed the usual roadside sights at the usual 1mph: male street vendors walking up to your window to sell you items from their portable display board made out of cardboard and adhesive tape. On this journey alone I was offered superglue, a TV remote control, a clock radio, a small toolkit in a zip-up wallet and a toilet seat. I politely declined. Women balancing huge loads on their heads is also something you see on every street, as are one-legged landmine victims on crutches. Everything is dusty, dirty and broken. Filling in any remaining gaps between the cars, minibuses, pedestrians and street vendors are the motorcyclists. You name it, I’ve seen it. Everything from a shiny Yamaha R1 superbike to the most obscure chinese moped (Hanfang?). Most are dirty, battered, rusty-chained and square-tyred, and standard motorcycling gear here appears to be T-shirt, shorts and flipflops. Helmets optional. Some wear proper motorcycle helmets and some wear horse-riding hats — apparently there was a clampdown on helmet use a couple of years ago and someone somewhere had a job lot of horse-riding hats going cheap, and the trend has stuck.
The car disgorged us at our second stop: Casa Dos Frescos (House of Freshness!). Smaller, brighter, and altogether this-is-more-like-it, Casa Dos Frescos is actually quite a comfortable shopping experience with some nice produce. So why don’t we shop there all the time? I’ll give you one guess. $20 for a punnet of strawberries, $12 for a small block of cheddar, $100 for a bottle of average malt whisky. So the best practice is to go to Jumbo first, then top up at Casa Dos Frescos for anything you couldn’t get at Jumbo, plus a couple of treats. Weetabix is a treat. Again, no fresh chicken and I was annoyed to see they were out of biltong too.
We got a basketful of stuff ($130) and returned to the car. Just as we pulled away and still right outside the supermarket was the final street vendor of the trip: a young man selling fresh chicken. So fresh they still had heads and feathers. He carried two in each hand by the neck, and had a further ten or so lying in a row on the pavement behind him.
Beef for dinner tonight (again).