Tuesday 27 November 2007

A (very) short holiday

Living in Angola, I am used to the now thankfully decreasing threat of assault but after over a decade here, I suppose the odds were against me and last week I received a good hiding. Not, as one might imagine, from drugged up local juveniles or hardened criminals but from a completely unexpected source, a British co-worker.

Medical attention here may be a little crude by comparison with UK but at least I did not have to wait hours in an emergency room and the medical staff treated me with the utmost compassion. A few stitches later and X-Ray evidence of compressed vertebrae and a fractured eye socket I was advised to take it easy; lie down and avoid any strenuous activity which included travelling in vehicles on Luanda’s bumpy roads. Instead of thousands of pounds worth of consultant’s time and innumerable tests, the diagnosis was quick and as honest as it was simple. I had received a kicking, was in a bad way but I would live. Nature would take its course and in the meantime, here was a packet of Aspirins. I got into my car and drove gingerly back to the site.

It was my ex-wife’s turn to have Dominic over the weekend and, much as I love Marcia, my long-time girlfriend, the thought of spending a whole weekend alone with her fussing over me was almost as bad as sitting stiff necked in the site recreation area. Clearly I had to do something to avoid feeling sorry for myself.

Fishing, my favourite pastime, was clearly out of the question. My head would have dislocated after bouncing over the first wave. A right eye firmly swollen shut precluded sighting down the barrel of a hunting rifle, never mind the potential effects of recoil so that was out too. So I decided to go sightseeing.

I have been here over a decade and it dawned on me that I have never gone anywhere in this country without a reason. The idea of just jumping in the car and travelling somewhere for no other motive than seeing what was at the other end was alien to me. I did not even know what to take. My camera, obviously. Cash and Identity papers seemed like a good idea. Shorts to swim in. If I got wet, then I’d need a towel. I was bound to get thirsty so a bottle of Grants and a few chilled tins. Honestly, I was pathetic. By the time I had finished loading the car, all that was missing were my golf clubs and regimental sword (I had overlooked that last item hanging on the wall in the lounge).

Marcia, having struggled out into the yard on her own with a cool box sensibly loaded with fruit juice and sandwiches while I was doing a creditable impression of a Pickford’s removal man made short shrift of my efforts. Finally wresting my laptop from my grasp she left the maids to clear up the tonne or so of abandoned kit and ordered me to set off.

With no clear destination in mind, we just drove. South of Luanda, the road is in excellent condition and the scenery a salve to eyes used to decrepit buildings and piles of rubbish. Pretty soon, we were on our own and I began to remember why I fell in love with Africa. To our right, the Atlantic Ocean glittered, its painfully blue surface occasionally broken by the wake of a fishing boat. Overhead, eagles soared as they scoured the ground between ancient Boabab trees looking for elusive prey. It would be corny to say that time stood still, but with my arm hanging out of the open window and us pootling steadily southwards, it certainly slowed down.

We crossed the Kwanza River bridge, no sign of the entrenched machine gun positions I remembered, instead a neat little home-made stand piled high with fruit and two little girls perched on top of a sack of something bulky, probably pineapples, completely oblivious of their reason for being there. In the old days, the sight of a 4x4 braking suddenly and reversing back would have sent them scurrying into the bush but not now. Alerted to the arrival of a potential customer they launched into not so much a sales routine but a well-rehearsed dance. Everything on offer was displayed beneath the most beguiling of smiles and no, they did not have any change.

So I sat there, munching avocados the size of my swollen head, sitting on top of my sack of pineapples and watched the rest of the world rush by. We shared our sandwiches, emptied the cool box and in return, two little girls told me all about the really important things in life in-between stabbing the stitches in my head with grubby fingers and falling about in floppy heaps of hysterical laughter every time I winced.

I can understand it was not exactly Marcia’s idea of a day out and we do have a lot of rotting fruit in the kitchen but for me, it was brilliant.

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