My Life as an American Expat Living in Luanda Angola
"How about we move to Angola for a few months?", asked my boyfriend after getting an assignment there in early January 2012. I jumped at the opportunity to live in Africa for a short period and after all, what I imagined to be an emerging and exciting country. I couldn't fathom a better time for me to live abroad than during the second year of my Master program when I had a year to complete my Master's Thesis. At the end, a few months turned into eight months as an expat living in Angola and here I am, sharing my experience with you!
I have mixed feelings about being an American expat in Luanda, Angola. I realize that I lived in the city during a very transient time. The civil war that tore the country apart right after the war for independence from Portugal had just ended a decade earlier. The bullet hole-filled buildings in the city center are still getting mended and the millions of landmines that litter the countryside have yet to be deactivated. The country though is optimistic, and in it's favor, it's rich in natural resources. Hungry for Western expertise, expats are flocking mostly from Portuguese-speaking countries like Portugal, Brazil, and also from the great US state of Texas, since that's where the oil experts reside. There are lots of opportunities and corporations are eager to get a piece of it. And that’s what brought me to Sub-Saran Africa. My boyfriend works for an international corporation and was asked to work on an assignment there and I came along for the ride.
During our first week, we stayed at Hotel Baia. While my boyfriend would go to work, I spent my days e-mailing my Thesis Supervisor for reading material, reading academic articles about corporate sustainability (the basis of my thesis), Face-Timing my friends and family, working out at the rooftop gym with an amazing view (and a personal trainer), looking out the window and contemplating going outside. I seemed to be the only ‘significant other’ at the hotel as I only saw men in suits, talking on their phones or in front of their laptops. I practiced my Portuguese with the personal trainer at the gym who I had all to myself and the waiters as I ordered my $5 Cokes and $27 burgers. I got the courage to go outside for a run once along the water but turned back after about ten minutes of tolerating the stench from the water and humidity. One day as I looked out the window, I didn’t quite understand what was going on because I just saw trucks driving by filled with furniture and various trinkets. I asked my boyfriend about it that night and he said it was people getting ‘relocated from the ‘mussulos’ nearby. After a week at the Baia, we moved into the newly opened Epic Sana.
Epic Sana is a gorgeous hotel which I called home for the rest of my time in Luanda. It has three restaurants, an indoor and outside pool, a sauna, gym, etc. I was confined to the 20 floor hotel's vertical space, going from my hotel room to the restaurant, lounge area and pool - mostly because I was mugged the one time I decided to go outside early in my trip so any future trips outside included calling one of my two drivers. During the following months in Angola, I contacted multiple organizations and the embassy to see if I can volunteer somewhere but apparently no efforts were going on in Luana. I wanted to organize a beach clean up but it couldn’t find anyone to join my effort. So my life was confined to the hotel and going to restaurants for dinner.
Luanda, Angola is a very unusual place, to say the least. Just last year, it was considered the most expensive city in the world, yet it's filled with poverty and is too dangerous to wander around alone. We lived in a hotel in the city center where daily rates are pricier than the most trendy hotel in New York City, but the surroundings confined me to the hotel or getting a driver in order to even take a step outside.
As you read this, please don't take offense because I don't intend to offend anyone but just to share my personal experience.
Shopping in Luanda
If you're looking to do some shopping, Belas Shopping Mall is the place to go in Luanda. It was the first mall to open in the city. Needless to say, I was very excited for its existence since it was one of the only places where I was able to walk around a public area, although I suspect they don't just allow any Angolan to experience it, judging by the gates and guards with AK-47s at the entrance.
My first trip to Belas was quiet something. I quickly realized driving up to Belas, which is located outside the city center that not just anybody can get through the doors of the mall. There's certainly a specific kind of clientele that's welcome, which certainly doesn't include the likes of the ladies who walk around the sides of the roads selling all kinds of goods in plastic bowls balanced on top of their heads. Nope, everyone at Belas Shopping Mall is very polished and everything is very expensive.
The mall also includes a grocery store, called ShopRite - I'm unsure whether there's any connections to the ShopRites I am familiar with in New York but it certainly doesn't look like it, judging by the products. This ShopRite looks more like a large 99 cents store (or a Chinese shop, which is the equivalent in Portugal where I was coming from). Anyway, wanting to buy some q-tips which I forgot to pack and the hotel doesn't have any of, I asked a sales girl in Portuguese and after we both walked over to the isle and searched for them, I was told they don't have any stocked right now! Crazy, isn't it, but such is life in Luanda where stores aren't fully stocked at all times. My driver didn't know where else I can possibly buy q-tips.
We bought a couple of things at ShopRite and right after paying, the power went out before the receipt was printed out. Power outages are the norm apparently because nobody seemed to mind the fact that the store became pitch dark! Conversations continued all around us as if it was nothing. We also weren't allowed to leave the register because we didn't have our receipt in hand, which is necessary to show upon leaving the store, when a security guard inspects the contents of each bag, comparing it to the receipt! So we waited around for about 10 minutes until the power went back on with the backup generator.
A security guard patrols the parking lot of Belas Shopping Mall atop something that looks like a hunting post. I resisted taking pictures as I was afraid that I'll get fined as is the case with taking pictures of any 'officials'. Upon leaving the parking lot, we had to pay 300 kwanza but we didn't have any local currency. They were happy to accept the US Dollar equivalent though in dollars which was roughly $3.
There's a movie theater in the mall. A movie ticket costs about $22. And I thought movie tickets in New York very expensive!
Epic Sana in LuandaClick thumbnail to view full-size
Poll on visiting Luanda
Do you plan to visit Luanda?
Insane Accommodation Prices!
Expats stay either at hotels or compounds but Americans typically stay in compounds with their guards and high fences. Hotels are located in the city center and a room will set you (or your employer) back about $400 a night. The compounds are located in Luanda Sul, an area south of Luanda and have gorgeous houses, swimming pools, and security. They are very pricey and mostly oil company families live in these. Houses / apartments on a compound costs between $6000 to $10000 per month. Employers usually foot the accommodation bill. The reason for the insane prices is that there is way much more demand than supply of housing.
For the prices, you'd expect something spectacular but in reality you just basics for that price. I hear that water and electricity are a problem all throughout Luanda. It doesn't affect me much since I'm staying at a hotel and when the power goes out (which it does frequently), it comes back up in a couple of minutes. But for someone that's renting, it's important to have a back up generator and a large water tank.
Sky-high Dining Prices!
Just to give you an idea about food prices, a buffet lunch at my hotel costs $75. That doesn't include drinks. A can of coke is $5. A burger at the restaurant is $25. The average prices of meals at the restaurants we've been to are about $60 per person.
Everyone ends up knowing each other at hotels and dining together in groups. It gives me the sense of either being in a dorm or on a cruise.
Personal Drivers and Traffic
As an expat in Luanda, you can't expect to drive around the city on your own and after you see the quality of driving, I can't imagine that you'd want to! The reality is that expat are advised not to drive as a repercussion in case you were to get in a car accident or come across a local official, you'll be in big trouble (I won't get into the 'local justice').
Traffic in Luanda is a nightmare! You can expect to always be stuck in traffic. And during peak hours, forget about it. You can expect to spend between 10 minutes and 2 hours to drive about half a mile!
The driving quality is another story - I've never seen or imagined such craziness! There are hardly any traffic lights, they cut each other off like crazy, there's total disregard for pedestrians, they swerve all over the road, and try to speed down the street like there's some street racing going on.
Public transportation is almost non-existent, with the exception of a handful of taxis which have the rep of not being very safe and there are also buses that some locals take but they're not advisable for foreigners.
A video to give you a sense of the traffic in Luanda
A Bright Future?
Luanda is definitely an unusual place to be right now and I can't imagine anyone traveling here for leisure (not to mention the difficultly one may face even trying to obtain a visa). The expat community is pretty much limited to people working in oil, construction and consulting.
There are certainly awesome aspects of being here during this transitional time. I'm seeing glassy skyscrapers going up alongside crumbling, rundown buildings; slums are getting taken down in front of my eyes in order to make room for new development; roads are being paved; and right now is certainly an exciting time, in an adventurous kind of way for an expat to be living in Luanda.
I would imagine that things will be very different here even one year from now. Hopefully they will only change for the better.