Sunday, 12 February 2012

Hang on lads, I've got a great idea...

Just a quick note at the end of the first week at the Barra de Kwanza and what an eventful week!

I shan’t dwell anymore on the well reported disasters, principle of which was an overly enthusiastic lunar and wind driven series of high tides that wrecked the site, these things happen. I would rather dwell on the, oh so minor but deeply satisfying successes.

First and most important was getting the restaurant kitchen kitted out as a berth for us to bunk in and the ladies restroom fitted out as a galley to cook in. Check.

Then there was internet access. Ambitious I know but having rigged up a remote antenna I actually have a stronger and faster connection than I did in town. Figure that one out.

Despite more than a year of indolence providing me ample opportunity to plan this project and its execution down to the last detail, to design and pay for the pre fabrication and subsequent erection of the cottages, the finishing and fitting out of the restaurant and countless other essential activities, it is only once on the ground that the ‘Plan’ could be given a reality check. Clearly, certain modifications were necessary. I was still trying to get my head around the various options (I was dithering, in other words) when the sea kindly invaded and left me with far fewer courses of action to consider.

Having faced Nature’s test, I know that the restaurant and kitchen are safe. Despite the Atlantic Ocean’s best efforts, it could only drain, frustrated no doubt, around these essential components of Flordita’s infrastructure so I am confident enough to carry on with the restaurant and it will open soon. The rest of the land, however, has only just started to dry out, it will in due course but in the meantime I have to accept that I must build the land up before I can even think of erecting cottages. Anyone with an even basic grasp of mathematics would be able to calculate that raising two hectares up by 30 cms (doesn’t sound a lot) will require six thousand cubic metres of soil, about 300 truck loads which, at $600 per load would cost me $180,000. Time to be morose again? Not at all.

By the most amazing coincidence, my neighbour on the other side is excavating a dock for his new yacht and has been transporting the spoil miles out of the village to dump it. He is more than happy to save about a million litres of diesel for his trucks by running it two hundred yards to my property and dumping it there instead. For free. He has even said that once I have enough, he will send his bulldozer and grader down to do a proper job. Another tick in the box.

I had become used to no television. There is too much to do and besides, now that the sun is shining and sitting in what is paradise compared to the city, who wants to stay indoors anyway? But I have to think of poor old Alex who,, in the evening, would really misses his Tom and Jerry and In The Night Garden so I had to get the dish installed. Bereft of a compass or an azimuth gauge this really was harder than shooting at the moon, at least you can see the Earth’s original satellite. Took me bloody ages but using geometry perfected by Pharaohs and a ‘pass the message on’ system of communication while I made infinitesimally small corrections, we now have satellite TV.

At the same time the generator was stolen, Marcia’s shop, empty of stock, had been broken into and all the racking, light fittings even plug sockets had been lifted as well. They took the shop door as well leaving just a gaping hole where it had once been. As I say, these things happen so we knuckled down and fixed up the shop as this will provide our essential initial income. Using the scrap wood from the old cottages we were demolishing, we knocked up shelves. There was one almost complete cottage that I wanted to keep as it would not take much to make it habitable, allowing us to get out of the kitchen and let the builders get in and finish the restaurant. The old cottage walls had been made using a local material called bordão, which is basically the central stalk of very large palm leaves. It makes an excellent building material but the new cottages would be constructed solely of hardwood so I asked the builders to remove the bordão walls in preparation for wood cladding. Marcia wanted this cottage to be demolished as well as it had a thatched roof, which I liked, but the new cottages will have Portuguese tile so she wanted all cottages to match. For goodness sake, when she met me she must have realised what I was like, none of my furniture matched and some of it I had dragged around the world with me on my various travels. I was appalled some years back when I came home after a long business trip to discover she had bought a 3 piece suite and tossed my old Persian rugs in favour of shag pile carpets. Whereas I had been content with an upturned cardboard box next to my old arm chair on which to rest my fags and whisky, now I had a low, designer coffee table in the middle of the lounge I could not reach. I shan’t tell you how much she paid for the ‘set’ but it ran to thousands. The only furniture I ever bought was at jumble sales or expatriate house clearances.

Nature, who I have cautiously decided might actually be on my side, decided for me when she threw the waves at me. Its structure weakened by the removal of the walls yet still supporting the weight of a few tonnes of thatch, the hut gave up the ghost and with a groan of tortured timber, collapsed into the maelstrom. Marcia was delighted and we concentrated on the shop since this was now about all we had left.

From the day it opened, the shop has done a roaring trade. Rather than bank the profits, I told Marcia to use them to increase stock levels. Not far from here is the bridge over the River Kwanza which is controlled and guarded by a sizeable unit of police. The Detachment Commander, hearing that there was a shop so near visited and emptied the freezers and most of the shelves in one go. He left Marcia with a list of ‘must be in stock’ items so it looks like we are now suppliers by appointment to the Angolan Police Force. We are supplying wholesale but charging retail. I should send Marcia on Dragon’s Den or whatever the programme is called.

You need to understand that this is nothing more than a little trading post on the banks of a river in the middle of nowhere. Cut out the violence and it could be something out of Heart of Darkness, white trash eking out a living selling candles, paraffin, booze and tinned goods to the natives. I was surprised, therefore, when Marcia returned from yet another resupply run the day before yesterday, tossed a box at me and asked me to get the contents working. I was surprised because it was a TPA, a Terminal Pagamento Automatico. It is one of those machines all shops in civilised countries have allowing clients to pay using cards, in this case, Angolan bank cards and Visa. It works over the mobile phone network, as I learnt reading the instructions. So I charged it up (the power in Angola fails more often than not so it has its own back up batteries) and eventually managed to link up to the bank. The news that we had Multi Caixa, as it is called here, spread like wildfire and all yesterday we were taking multi caixa payments.

Now this is brilliant. It means that the amount of cash we end up with on site is kept down and we have a whole new ramp of potential customers. Still, we were taking too much cash so when one of Marcia’s customers asked her if she could charge his card and give him the cash she came to me for advice.

‘Do you know him?’ I asked

Apparently he lives in the village and every time he needs cash, he has to drive all the way into town, a cost of both time and expended fuel. I pointed out that the bank charge us 1% for every transaction. Marcia explained this to him butt he said she could charge him 10% it would still work out cheaper for him, anything to avoid driving into town, searching vainly for a cashpoint with cash in it before ending up queueing for hours in the bank. They agreed 5%, a rate apparently so attractive there was a rush on the 'bank' so to speak. She is now an unofficial branch of the bank for residents of the village and we can transfer all our takings electronically to our account rather than doing a cash and bank run and everyone is delighted.

So what of the cottages? No point in even thinking about them just yet. Nature has pointed out I still need to do more groundworks but she was kind enough to do so before I erected the huts, not afterwards which truly would have been disastrous. So now I am turning four of the six cottages I have paid for into one new shop for Marcia closer to the main road and a two bedroomed cottage for us to live in. By the time our new shop and home are complete, I will have the groundworks done and we can complete and open the restaurant and start erecting the cottages for Flordita.

I quickly lost track of the days but I know today is Sunday because all our customers are dressed in white, de Rigeuer for attending Church here. The sun is shining brightly, the sea is benign and for Sunday lunch we have beef filet which I will sear over glowing charcoal.

It took a tidal wave, but it looks as though we have a plan now. Not bad for just the first week.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. From your last blog, I thought the shop sounded a good winner, at least for cash flow.

    Now, knowing Angola a little, I guess having the police care and provide some protection for you against the next thief is asking a bit much.

    If they run out of money before payday, you will be ripe for the picking.

    No chance you could have another Sabre or two to help guard at night?

  3. It sounds like the storm was the best thing to happen this week (you know, aside from the cash flowing in).

    You found out where and how you need to build, built a friendship with a local that benefited you both, demolished an unliked building for free.

    Of course, I'm sure there was some stark terror during the actual event (I've been in some big ocean storms, myself), but what a job in helping you build it right.

    May your luck stay that course.

  4. Sometimes Josh, when in the depths of dispair, it was hard to believe what my father always said, everything happens for the best. Who knows what awful alternatives we have unwittingly avoided?


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