Friday, 12 August 2011

The 70 Dollar Pizza, a basic one at that...

I live in the most expensive place in the world. An Irish newspaper has confirmed it.

The really most expensive pizza in the world. An 'edible' gold flaked creation by chef Domenico Crolla which, sold to a Sr. Maurizio Morelli (a man who clearly spares no expense when it comes to gilding his toilet paper) for a whopping US$4,200, gratifyingly knocked a lesser white truffle creation by that noxious, foul mouthed school boy bully and inept footballer, Gordon Ramsey, into a distant second place. Some things are worth paying for.

A friend of mine sent me this link, an article in the Irish Independant about the cost of living in Angola which you really should read before going any further.

Apparently Luanda, where I live, is now regarded as the most expensive city in the world. So while I was considering economising by moving to a far cheaper city, Monaco perhaps (Hong Kong would be no good, I would fall in love with the maids leaving Miss M with no other option but to kill me), I flashed off the following to the Editor of the Irish Independant:


As a UK expatriate living in Angola, I read Mr Nolan’s article on the cost of living in Luanda with great interest.

I was left with a nagging doubt that Mr Nolan had missed the real point, not how expensive things can be in Luanda, but how the more generous a salary, the less likely its recipients are to spend it wisely.

Angolan businessmen, like successful entrepreneurs in any country, will charge what the market can stand. I am sure that Sir Alan would have been less than sweet with me had he discovered I had only charged 200 bucks a night when there were punters, to use his vernacular, willing to pay twice that for a bed.

I agree with Mr Nolan that the high prices one can pay here are fuelled by an apparently insatiable demand from the undeniably large expatriate community some of whom, a few, enjoy better salaries than they could command in their countries of origin, a situation exacerbated by an apparent lack of infrastructure to supply that demand. I remain bemused, however, that having no intention to settle down here so many expatriates, not all by any means but enough, waste a large proportion of their remuneration. Instead of saving it and taking it home, they can be found frequenting every bar, disco, restaurant and shop, the existence of which depend on separating expats from their pay cheques, a part of the economy refuting to a degree, the contention that oil revenues do not filter down to the population. The owner of the restaurant may be part of an emergent middle class, but his staff are working class and they all benefit from the prices some are willing to pay, not the prices they are forced to pay.

Accommodation is in short supply and can be eye-wateringly expensive, there is no question of that and a situation that will take several years to resolve until all the new hotels, those under construction and those planned are finally completed, gradually tipping the balance of supply and demand in favour of the itinerant traveller looking for a scratcher to lie upon but $400 per night? There is only one place in town that charges that much. They say London is expensive but I can get a comfortable room there within walking distance of Marble Arch for forty quid complete with A La Carte restaurant and a bar serving London Pride on tap. I cannot promise a foaming pint of heavy, but as far as decent, reasonably priced accommodation is concerned, it’s here in Luanda as well.

Rental accommodation is also expensive but as more and more residential accommodation is restored now that the country enjoys its post war reconstruction, prices are coming down. In addition, as the perception grows that Luanda is not as dangerous as some would have us believe, new suburbs of the city, now linked by smart, newly built dual carriageways, open up additional rental opportunities increasing supply and depressing prices.

I can understand that faced with a bottom line of tens, even hundreds of millions, twenty grand a month to rent a house for a senior manager would be dismissed as trivia looking at the ‘Big Picture’ and prioritizing as directors so often have to do. I can also accept that the comparative studies by companies such as Mercer only consider the costs to multi national employers of deploying expatriate employees to developing countries with the contractual guarantee to hand feed them the conditions they demand before they would even climb on the plane. Let’s face it, these companies busting into or exploiting the opportunities of a developing market want the best but propose to send them to a country in Africa, one synonymous with biblical doses of war, pestilence and poverty to do a job and provide shareholder value, not to bond with the natives (although so many do find the time) so they need to offer some attractive conditions and are willing to write an awful lot down to local conditions.

The last house I rented here had three bedrooms and its own stretch of beach in an exclusive suburb and cost the company $6,000 per month yet the article suggests 20K is the norm. If someone pitched up at your three bed semi and offered you twenty grand a month when you knew that your neighbour down the road was willing to take three fifty a week, what would you do? So I cannot blame the ‘Intermediarios’, the agents who find suitable properties for multi nationals, for pushing the prices as high as they can, after all, the system here is that for every six months of signed up contract, the newly enriched landlord must pay one month to the agent. Clearly the agent, who the house hunter assumes is doing him a favour by finding him a good deal, is instead negotiating the most outrageous rent and longest contract he can bleed from his client.

I did hear about one expat who paid $100 for a pineapple. I think that trumps Mr Nolan’s ten dollar cucumber.

The best supermarket in town is one run by a South African group who must have dozens of them all around town but their flagship shop is in the Belas Shopping centre in the southern suburbs where I live. Belas is the only shopping centre, as expats would understand the term, and its shops and boutiques charge a premium. Despite its convenience, the only thing I buy there are the hard to get imported spices, herbs, the little luxuries. Everything else, I buy on the local market.

Imported beer costs me $12 for a case of 24. I pay about $8 for twenty kilos of potatoes and the same for imported Thai rice. I can find imported cheeses for a few dollars a kilo and never pay more than about ten dollars a bottle for a very palatable imported Cabernet Sauvignon. Eggs, tomatoes, onions, fresh coriander leaves and parsley are pennies and I can get a sublime version of Parma ham and buy cured bacon in chunks the size that would moisten Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s eyes, especially if I offered him local cider as well.

I pay ten dollars for two hundred cigarettes and less than that for a bottle of imported Scotch whisky. Real whiskey is a little dearer. Guinness is cheap at eighty cents a can but it is made in Nigeria so is sickly sweet rather than bitter and reminds me why I need to go home now and then.

I can buy 25 kgs of chicken legs for $20, the same for beef filet and silverside and for the same price can even get forest buffalo and freshly culled venison and to make it all taste even better on a Sunday lunchtime, I grow my own Horseradish and other herbs and vegetables in the garden of mine that surrounds the house I built and paid for with those allowances of mine I didn’t drain into a pub urinal.

Although it is not my intention to make anyone back home emotional, I cannot resist pointing out that car insurance here for a young first timer is $300 per annum and fuel is 40 cents a litre and the fishing and shooting are excellent. Expats pay about $750 for a day trip on a sport fisher, locals about half that, even less if they climb on board with a container of fuel (no questions asked). The official green fee for the golf course is $25. Pitch up quietly during the week and let the caddies have a swing and you pay nothing. Income tax works out at 8% and we will not be asked to bail out Greece, Italy and Spain or jack in our belts as tight as the Irish.

I realise that having settled down in Angola, I perhaps know the local market better than some stressed out executive sent here to do a job that has nothing to do with sorting his own life out here, rather everything to do with figures. But I did make the effort to get further than the bounds of the traditional expat stamping ground and it has paid off but I am by no means unique. I and so many others quickly learnt, for example, that a local maid could be hired for as little a couple of hundred dollars a month and she would know exactly where to buy everything needed without access to an expense account. Tomatoes are in season and, combined with cheese and Italian herbs over toasted local bread accompanied by a decent book make a most welcome alternative, as a nightcap, to lying alone in a $400 bed in a Formica and chrome hotel room.

I do feel Mr Nolan missed the point. What he should have reported is how much some companies are willing to pay against what it really costs to live here.

Perhaps that is why there is this constant effort to describe Angola as a ‘hardship’ location, a place at the extreme of a map annotated with, ‘Here be Demons’. No wonder auditors readily sign off extraordinary expense accounts rather than come here and see for themselves.

The difference is a charge on the bottom line that shareholders ought to be aware of.

Whilst they profit from their presence, Angolans look on expats in the same light the English did US servicemen during WWII, ‘overpaid, oversexed and over here’ and, just like the English back then, they are taking them for every penny but, unlike their marks, they know where to spend them wisely.

Oh, and the best place to get a Pizza in town is down on the Marginal, just opposite the Sonangol Petrol station. It is run by Angolans of Italian extract and they do great home made ice cream as well. Fifteen bucks might not get you a smoked salmon and caviar topping but it’ll get you an excellent Siciliana with extra chillies and a smile from a friendly waitress to die for.

Yours faithfully

Tom Gowans


  1. Man, am I glad you are back and writing! The one thing you've done to me here is make me want to visit Angola, for sure. Also, I'm now hungry.

    It's funny how those same Captains of Industry decrying the costs of Luanda are more than happy to let the market float when it comes to their commodity - and even game it whenever they can.

    One question from a non-Brit: punters?

  2. There I am referring to Sir Alan's vernacular completley oblivious to my American audience for whom all is little more than Greek.

    Firstly, Sr Alan Sugar, multi millionaire businessman, solid, down to earth and brutal if you cross him. He now has a TV program in UK called the 'Apprentice' in which he gives them all, for the chance of a job, various tasks, sacking those along the way who don't make the grade.

    He really does not piss about and his trademark phrase is, 'You're sacked!'

    Hence my saying that Sir Alan would not be sweet with me if I undercharged hotel rooms. Gettit? Sir Alan Sugar? Sweet? Never mind.

    Punter. This is anyone who needs something. We are all punters. Originally it referred to people betting on horses, dogs or anything else but now is a sort of East End slang for anyone who has money to burn in their pockets, money that any decent salesman knows is theirs. Even if the 'punter' is not out to spend his money, the decent salesman will help the punter identify a need he never knew he had so he volountarily digs in his own pockets and hands it over.

    What else? Oh, 'Mark'. A Mark is anyone identified, not just by a decent salesman but also a conman who is considered a viable target.

    A Mark, is anyone who can be persuaded to hand over his cash.

    A lot of Angolans consider expats here, Marks.

  3. Hippo

    Josh is right, it's really good to see you posting again, and it's fascinating to learn more about a land I only hear about on TV


  4. I knew "mark", as that one is used here (as in, "if, when you sit down at the table, you don't know the mark, then guess who he is").

    Punter is a good one.

    Sir Alan Sugar, eh? We've got "The Apprentice" here, too - Donald Trump. He says, "you're fired." Nice pun.... although, if you are getting a compliment on a pun from me, watch out. My wife says I'm quite the pun-ter.

  5. Hahaha, genious as always. Your reads are so much fun. Go there over X-Mas and cannot wait. Gotta be careful not to stay down there! :)Oh BTW, has it been mentioned that Angola has the most progressive music scene in Africa? Portuguese influences - accordeon and viola - coupled with African rhythms, thrown into the oldest former colony in Africa and a tragic but artistically inspiring war legacy, and what comes out is a most unique musical extravaganza and a heartwrenching blend of emotions, passion and energy. Kuduro if you are younger and Bonga for the more traditional. But be careful, Bonga will make you cry even if you do not understand a word. Pure magic!

    Forca Angola!


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