26 November 2008

The move that will not end

It’s been sworn to me that Huambo is a mere seven hours from Luanda by truck on fancy new Chinese roads or a short, one hour plane trip on the national carrier. These figures, however, do little to explain the practical distance between here and there especially when you’d like to stay there for a few months or you’re trying to move the entire contents of your household there. Months after getting started with the process we’re still in Luanda.

We began looking for a house in Huambo in late August. Since, Rebecca has made two solo trips and we’ve made one as a family with the intention seeing, negotiating for, and signing a lease on an apartment. Each trip has gone more or less the same. A few days before we’re scheduled to arrive we begin making phone calls to tell people when we’ll be in town to see apartments. Everyone tells us that this will be simple and that there are lots of good, cheap houses in Huambo and that we should be able to see them and that we will find something quickly and without problem. We arrive in Huambo and find ourselves unable to get in touch with anyone. The lines are jammed, people’s phones are turned off or are disconnected, or the people we were supposed to speak with have just left town (usually for Luanda, from which we just arrived).

We spend a week living in a guesthouse and spend our days making dozens of phone calls and waiting for people to call us back. If we’re lucky we get some vague directions and the phone number of someone’s cousin’s father who promises us that so-and-so doesn’t work and is home and waiting there to show us the apartment. We spend an hour or more trying to find the place, standing in front of possible buildings, knocking on doors, and walking around asking all the same questions to dozens of neighbors, getting different answers from each, trying to find the right place and person. Eventually we arrive back at the first and most suspicious building to ask, one more time, if the people there are sure they don’t know so-and-so who lives on the second floor. “We were told that she would show us the apartment,” we say. “Oooooh,” comes the answer, “Yes, her. This is her apartment. She’s not home. She’s at work. She left hours ago and she’ll be home at the end of the day. No one is home.” Apparently now that we’ve spent an hour wandering around and being evaluated by everyone it’s safe to tell us that we had the right spot in the first place.

We call the person who sent us there to tell him the girl is at work. After we convince him that she’s not home and force him to admit that he hasn’t talked to her in days let alone told her that we were coming this morning, he agrees to come to show it himself and says he’ll be there in ten minutes. Twenty or thirty minutes later he arrives. He leads us past the women cooking in front of the door and the five or six children playing the front room as we try to see the apartment through the dim and dust. We try to discuss the possibility of a few repairs before we move in. He doesn’t know anything about all that; we’ll have to talk to so-and-so. “Great. We’d like to meet him. Where is he today?” “Well, he lives in Luanda.” Of course. Eventually Rebecca arranged for us a reduced rate that the guesthouse where we will live for the next couple of months. The move to Huambo can no longer be delayed simply because we have no place to live once we arrive there.

In the meantime we’ve been trying to find a home for the contents of our household. We left our other house at the end of September. It was the end of the first portion of our lease and as difficult as it was proving to find a house in Huambo it seemed it was more likely to happen if we simply went ahead and made the leap. In the end we did so because we seem unable to exhaust the patience, kindness, and generosity of Arthur and Jojanneke who have tolerated a house full of boxes as we’ve come and gone from Luanda on various trips. After learning that Luanda’s car rental offices don’t allow their cars to leave the city (even with a hired driver) and that renting space in a mini-bus on its way to Huambo is prohibitively expensive, we set about begging and borrowing space in any vehicle we heard was headed to Huambo. One set of boxes went on a truck of the company of the son of our former landlord (only after a complicated, favor-fueled twenty km trip to their shipping depot in Viana). Two other sets have gone with other kind organizations and the remainder piecemeal on various airplanes.

With lodging-of-a-sort arranged and having successfully moved most of our household goods we assumed that getting ourselves to Huambo one last time would prove relatively simple. We were wrong. We first tried to purchase plane tickets on Saturday. We arrived at 10:50 to find the office which is supposedly open until 12:00 closed. On Monday Rebecca found them open but was told that they couldn’t issue the tickets until they saw our child’s passport to verify his age. Though it seemed strange that we had been able to book travel through this agent four previous times sans passport, I took it and made the punishing trip to town with child in-tow – his nanny was out sick – and finally got our tickets.

When we arrived at the airport at the appointed time on Tuesday the check-in desk clerk simply laughed at us. The flight was cancelled. That flight is always cancelled. True, there’s an afternoon flight on the schedule, but when had it ever gone? She couldn’t remember. The agent never should have booked us on that flight. We got back into the car and headed over to the airline’s offices. After an hour of guarding my spot in “line” and a simple transaction we had new tickets for the flight early the next morning.

So, this morning we got up at 4:00 so that we could be at the airport for a 4:30 check-in and a 6:30 flight. We arrived at 4:35 to learn that this flight was also cancelled. Airline policy says that we should have called to confirm it was going before we left the house, but, of course, the offices aren’t open at such ungodly hours. Why would they be? We eschewed the growing line at the window of a small airline which serves Huambo and an opportunity offered by a man on the sidewalk who insisted he could get us on a different flight if we would just give him our money and documents, and we raced off to the airline down the street (which “conveniently” has its own terminal and departure area) to see if we could still make their daily flight. We got there in time, but it was cancelled as well.

We were back at the house by 6:00 but still unsure how and when we’ll be getting to Huambo. Having had a cancelled flight two days in a row we were pretty sure our good luck with the national carrier (a rare thing, but we’ve had no problems with them this year)has run out and are afraid of re-booking with them. Their competitors are all small and we imagine, at this point, quite full because of the other cancellations.

At 9:00 we (2 year old included) left for Maianga/ Prenda where we’ve heard tell there’s an office for one of the smaller carriers. At 11:00, after two miserable and unbelievably hot bus rides and thirty minutes of walking up and down Amilcar Cabral we decided to let the toddler, with mom in tow, retreat to the comfort of an air conditioned bakery as I continued on foot. By 11:30 I had successfully found the office and purchased their first available tickets to Huambo. We’re now scheduled to fly on Saturday.

With luck, we’ll actually board that flight and land safely at our destination. After four months of house shopping, thousands of kwanzas in phone credits, multiple trips to our destined city, a mixed caravan of vehicles, and a WEEK SPENT TRYING TO BOARD AN AIRPLANE, we’re finally headed to Huambo. On Saturday. We hope. Now we just hope that we can find an actual house to live in once we’re really there so we don’t have to live in the guesthouse. As always, fingers crossed.

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