Wednesday 25 June 2014

There's No Place Like Home...

Well, I am back in Angola and, after UK, I was stunned into introspective silence.  God, it’s a shithole.

The flight on BA was every bit as bad as I feared.  I made the mistake of slipping my shoes off.  On arrival, my left leg and foot were so badly swollen, I had to hobble down the steps to the waiting bus and through immigration and customs shoeless as well as a little clueless; it was the first time I had entered Angola through the rebuilt terminal so long has it been since I travelled. 

Sensibly, I had taken my friend Paul’s advice and booked a minicab to take me from his beautiful house where I had been staying since leaving hospital, to Heathrow.  There, in Terminal Five, the agony started.  Despite being assured by BA customer services that I was entitled to two check in bags, the BA computer at the airport said ‘No’ so I was forced to lug everything across to another desk and pay the £65 they demanded for Alex’s boxed ‘bike.  The reason given was that although half the size of a maximum standard suitcase in two dimensions and weighing only one third of the maximum weight, it exceeded the maximum length allowed by three centimetres and required, therefore, ‘special’ handling.  I rejoined the check in queue and if I wasn’t already annoyed, became incandescent while witnessing a guy in front of me checking in a suitcase and a full size golf bag with no problems.  Wisely, I bit down hard on my tongue when told I could not check Alex’s ‘bike at the check in desk at which I had twice queued but had to take it instead all the way to the other end of the terminal to check it in at the oversize baggage desk.  I had already decided that BA’s flagship terminal was crap when I hit security.

I had two rucksacks.  A large one, marketed as the maximum size allowed as hand luggage, and a smaller one in which I had my laptop, two Samsung Tablets, an iPhone, a Samsung Galaxy smart phone and all my e-cigarette kit.  Now I am not sure if you are familiar with e-cigarettes but they consist of a USB rechargeable battery the size of a chunky fountain pen, an atomizer which comprises a dual heating coil contained within a clear glass tank (for the e-liquid) into which the battery screws.  Assembled, it looks uncannily like the time pencils wartime SOE agents used to blow up things behind enemy lines and does, in fact, contain two of the essential components of a viable bomb, a power source and an initiator.  I also had with me several 100 ml bottles of tobacco flavoured 24mg nicotine strength e-liquid (marked with the international symbol for poison, a skull and crossed bones) and one 150 ml bottle of Buttercup Syrup.  The rest of the bag was filled with enough medical dressings and ointments to stock a small pharmacy.

Buttercup Syrup, as every child in England knows, is the finest tasting medicine in the world and so free of noxious active ingredients it is licensed for children as young as two.  Like any child, Alex occasionally suffers from a chesty cough.  In Angola, the doctors prescribe antibiotics.  The Doctors in Angola prescribe antibiotics for pretty much everything and, as we have seen, this nearly had dire consequences for me so I wanted Marcia to rely on something other than the advice of men who apart from dressing in white coats, really know no more about medicine than an actor in Casualty.

The bag containing all this was maneuvered off the conveyor returning scanned bags to their owners and into the ‘special attention’ pile where a sullen young lady proceeded to examine every item in detail, even ignoring my advice to be careful with the contents of one particular plastic bag which, she discovered for herself, contained unwashed and wound contaminated grundies.  Yes, I know, why would anyone pack soiled laundry in their hand luggage?  Well, I had already packed everything (a feat of engineering in itself) when I realized I had forgotten to take these becoming surplus after showering and changing into account.  The box containing the ‘bike was well sealed with duct tap and releasing the catches of my suitcase would have caused a minor seismic event so into one of the rucksacks they went.

Although she was curious enough about the quantity and variety of dressings to ask me if I was a doctor, she ignored everything to do with e smoking and turned her attention to the bottle of Buttercup Syrup.

‘I shall have to confiscate this’, she told me.


‘Because it is more than 100 mls.’

‘OK, I’ll drink a third of it,’ I suggested.

She gave me a wintry smile.

‘I am serious,’ I assured her, ‘I’ll drink the top third now.’

‘The bottle will still be too big,’ she finally said.

‘So if I drank the lot, or poured it away, I still would not be allowed to carry the empty bottle?’

All the time we were having this rather bizarre conversation, other passengers were drinking the tops off their bottled water and soft drinks and, lying in amongst my now scattered possessions but clearly visible, were ten 100 ml plastic bottles of something largely made up of propylene glycol and marked as poison.  Clearly, it wasn’t quantity that mattered to this young lady, it was size.

I knew she was trying to piss me off and she knew she had succeeded.

‘Can I have a receipt?’ I asked, ‘that way I can go to Boot’s in the terminal and buy it back again.’

There was nowhere set aside for passengers to repack their bags.  I dragged everything across to a customer services counter, spilling much on the way and, much to its owner’s annoyance, proceeded to carefully repack everything.  As every experienced traveler knows, once unpacked again, a bag will never repack anywhere near as efficiently as it did the first time.  An official minced over and demanded, in a way suggestive of me having committed a crime, to know if I had been offered help to repack my bags. 

‘No,’ I told him somewhat relieved I wasn’t about to be arrested, ‘but I am missing a Terry’s Chocolate Orange.’ 

‘I had two but now I only have one,’ I added helpfully after deciding his vacant expression was a sign of incomprehension. 

Missing Terry’s Chocolate Oranges being evidently beyond his brief, he hurried away.

I went to Boot’s the Chemists but they did not stock Buttercup Syrup.  I thought it ironic that the two things that would either be confiscated or nicked would be items for a five year old boy while what, to all intents and purposes, could have been the components of a spectacularly effective improvised explosive device passed muster.  With regards to current methods of airport security and its effectiveness, I haven’t seen such a blatant money making scam since the Millennium Bug but it does serve as an uncomfortable reminder to those living in the West that events in the Levant and further east do affect their national security and are worth the billions spent and lives lost providing a robust response. (For those readers somewhat vague about irony, the needles on your Irony Detection Devices should be at full deflection now.  If they aren’t, they’re not working so go and get your money back)

After shuffling in unaccustomed heat for two hours in the Angolan immigration queue, I finally made it to baggage reclaim to discover that having had special handling in UK, Alex’s bike was receiving special handling in Angola.  Instead of being delivered to the baggage hall, it had been delivered direct to Angolan Customs.  This was annoying.  The reason I was so hot and sweaty, apart from the physical effort involved in lugging along a leg twice its normal size and, presumably, twice as heavy was that I was wearing a large raincoat.  The reason I was wearing a large raincoat inside a building in a hot country where the likelihood of rain, even outside, was nil,  was because its voluminous pockets now contained the two Samsung tablets, Marcia’s new Galaxy smartphone and Dominic’s new iPhone 5S Gold that had until very recently resided in my rucksack, the contents of which would now be innocuous to cursory examination by curious customs officials. 

It was one thing walking past customs officials while hidden amongst a load of tired and impatient passengers, quite another to be standing isolated in their midst hours later when, having examined four plane loads of tired and impatient passengers they had the time, tired and impatient and probably not a little vindictive themselves, to deal with me.  A limping, sweaty white man in a bloody great raincoat standing in his socks would arouse the special interest of even the most retarded bureaucrat.  And, of course, the box didn’t just contain a bicycle.  I had stuffed the free spaces with car parts, items that for some reason known only to the ministries of finance of countries in which cars or their parts are not made, attract ludicrously high levels of import duty.

Also in one of the pockets was a bottle of perfume I bought for Marcia on the ‘plane.  I don’t normally avail myself of the duty free offerings on airlines but finding myself with a bunch of surplus and in Angola largely useless UK pounds, and realizing that in amongst all the computers, telephones and car spares I had bought, there wasn’t a single ‘personal’ present from me for Marcia, I decided to lash out on a nice bottle of Dior.  There were two types on offer, both seemingly identical yet one cost eighty quid and the other sixty.  Marcia, I knew, would be able to tell the difference so I asked for the more expensive kind.  The cheaper kind had a subscript below the Dior pour Femme blazoned across the front of both cartons but it was too small for me to read off a glossy magazine page under a dim overhead light in a darkened cabin.  I made and paid for my order.  At two o’clock in the morning (in spite of my increasing discomfort I had just managed to doze off) a stewardess brought me my perfume sealed up in a natty little carrier bag.  I opened it.  Accuse me of lacking trust but I do like to see and hold what I buy.  This carton had the unreadable subscript and should have only cost sixty quid, not eighty.  I pointed this out to the stewardess.  Into her hand held machine, she punched in the item number from the in-flight duty free magazine for the more expensive bottle and it came up with the cheaper item but at a price of eighty quid.  I asked the stewardess to punch in the item number for the cheaper bottle and it came up with the same item but at sixty quid.

‘Hmmn,’ I said.

‘Hmmn,’ said the stewardess.

‘Is this a popular item?’ I asked her pointing to the more expensive item.

‘Oh, it’s our bestseller,’ she said proudly.  Normally an item being popular turns me off.  Shell suits are popular but I still wouldn’t wear one.

‘But everyone who orders the eighty quid item advertised in the brochure gets, in fact, the sixty quid item from the brochure?’

‘Perish the thought,’ I continued in order to cover the embarrassed silence, ‘ but one could almost draw the conclusion that British Airways were ripping off their tired and inattentive passengers.’

‘You owe me twenty quid,’ I said taking the perfume.

‘I’d rather not sell it,’ she said.

‘And I’d rather not write to Sky News,’ I said, ‘so can I please have my perfume and twenty quid change?’

I have no idea whether I got a good deal or not but it is gratifying to get something, however small, over on British Airways.

By the time the Customs warehouse opened I had been joined by Marcia, who was happily playing with her smartphone, and Alex who was happily playing with his tablet computer.  Also waiting was a fellow expat (for a bicycle, what a coincidence) and an Angolan lady.  Compared to our boxes, that of the Angolan lady was massive, every inch of it coated with adhesive tape to a depth only a seismologist would be able to determine.

‘Sign and print your names next to your box numbers,’ said the Customs official handing us expats a clipboard, his eyes locked on the box belonging to the unfortunate Angolan lady.  We signed and buggered off sharpish.

I had now been on the go for 24 hours, my dressing had come loose and slipped down my trouser leg and I was in agony.  Still, we fought our way through Luandan traffic so that I could stop by my ex house (‘ex’ not in the sense of the house of my ex-wife but in the sense of the house that used to belong to me) and gave a delighted Dominic his iPhone 5S Gold.  Yes it does have gold trim but is actually quite tasteful, not at all Liberace.  Once out of town and cantering south to the Barra de Kwanza I noticed the Jeep was making worrying noises.

‘How long has it been doing that?’ I asked Marcia.

‘A few weeks now but the Portuguese mechanic sprayed some oil underneath and said it was OK.’

We arrived home and the first thing I did was go for my tool box.  I knew that once I lay down, I would be down for days so wanted to put Alex’s bike together.  All my tools had gone.

This was a homecoming, a time of joy so I shrugged and suggested we went down to Rico’s place where they had tools.  There Alex got his bike, a decent bike, one made not in China but crafted in Birmingham, England.  Against his mother’s wishes, I let Alex ride it home, me following in the Jeep and by now very worried about the aural evidence of mechanical pain the car was going through.  I said nothing at the sight of my dead garden, in a way it was no more than I expected (apparently my Italian Grape Tomatoes had done well but all but one plant had been pinched) but I was concerned at all the oil around the generator.  A gentle enquiry revealed that the Portuguese mechanic, while servicing it, had been unaware of the sump pump so instead of using it to drain the old oil into a suitable container had merely undone the sump plug and allowed the waste oil to drain into the canopy from where it was now leaking out across my yard.  I added servicing the generator and an Exxon Valdiz cleanup to my ‘to do urgently’ list.

The list grew as alarmingly large as my leg.  The problem with the car was a failed front differential bearing so I had to drop the front propshaft while I order the parts.  While mucking about with the car, I noticed the dip stick was missing.  I asked Marcia about that and she told me the handle had broken off.  I asked her where the dip stick was so I could make a new handle, after all, we still needed it to dip the oil.  She told me that it was in the engine but that the Portuguese mechanic had said it was OK to run like that.  Even the most mechanically inept, I would imagine, could conceive of the catastrophic consequences of the engagement of loose metal strips and spinning crankshafts.  I added the retrieval of the errant dip stick to the list.  While doing that I noticed that someone had crudely welded the car’s cooling fan to its clutch housing.  The only way to get it off now would be to strip the front of the car down and cut it off with a blow torch.  The spares required to rectify the resulting damage will cost a fortune.  The Portuguese mechanic had suggested this artisan repair as a cure for overheating.  I had brought my cure for the car’s slight tendency to overheat in very heavy traffic (something I was aware of) in the form of an ignition overhaul kit: new plugs, new leads, new distributor cap and rotor arm, a new fuel filter.  The car was overheating slightly because the engine with ancient plugs and ropey leads was running lean on the crap fuel here, not because the fan wasn’t spinning fast enough.

Of course, the car would no longer start on the button, it had to be jump started using homemade jump leads and a slave battery which Marcia carried around with her in the back of the car.  The Portuguese mechanic had sold her two new batteries, Marcia told me, and they still did not work.  I looked at the batteries and could see neither was new but they still should have worked and was a bit bemused until I saw one of the lads start to jump the car by connecting the slave battery, amid a shower of sparks, with opposite polarity.  A quick check of the car’s alternator revealed that its rectifier had been blown, presumably through just such an inept opposite polarity connection.

Things were no better in the house.  The microwave was stuffed because someone had tried to heat up their lunch in an aluminium cooking pot.  There was no water in the loo so the solenoid controlling the influx of water into the washing machine, which had been left on in the vain hope water would magically appear, had burnt out.  I had been welcomed home enthusiastically by an ecstatic Charlie but of my other dog, Eddie, there was no sign.  He had crawled under the shop and died, I was told.  The ice cream machine has been unplugged and pushed into a corner.  I daren't go there just yet, not until I have sorted out the damage caused to the fuse box when someone messed with the shop wiring.

Compared to the foregoing, the rest of the stuff on my list is just petty and not worthy of mention but I am still bewildered that so much could go wrong in just six weeks.  And none of this had anything to do with the urgency with which I returned home.  Faced with losing the Filipino carpenter and my building crew, I had to come back if ever there was to be an end to this incessant build.  Ironically, all the labour issues were sorted out in less time than it took the boys to sink the cold beer each I had given them.

No one could blame any of this on Marcia.  I shouldn’t say because ‘she is just a girl’ but the fact remains, she is just a girl and it takes the special kind of girl I would hesitate to marry to wade in amongst and intimidate a bunch of recalcitrant labourers.  Few men, let alone women can fault diagnose something as mechanically complex as a car or, under stress, realize the solution to a lack of water is as simple as replacing a filter.  Yes, I was sick but I was receiving the best medical attention available in the world, I could trust the people advising me.  She, on the other hand, was left holding every single baby except the one she really wanted to hold.  With all the stress she miscarried and had no one she could rely on.

I have been back two weeks.  Happily, the car is nearly finished (all bar replacing the front diff bearing but that will have to await the arrival of new parts; it’ll run as a 2wd in the meantime), we can take a shower and wash our clothes, even the microwave works again.  The evidence of Alex having been left unattended in the cottage with his village children friends has been scrubbed from the walls, Charlie is putting on weight and work progresses down at the site.  My leg remains tender but not an issue that unduly concerns me.  Although the part of the wound where the graft failed is still raw, I was taught by the best nurses how to tend to it and for once I am religiously following their advice.

One good thing that has come from my time in hospital, in addition to giving up the smokes, is that I no longer watch TV.  I have paid only a passing interest in the World Cup.  I felt it appropriate that Brazil, as hosts, scored the first goal of the tournament and commiserated with them that it was into their own net.  I was looking forward to the Germany matches and was enjoying the drubbing they were giving Portugal but missed most of the second half when the new shop boy stuck his head in and confessed to emptying a 20 litre container of petrol into the diesel tank of the running generator.  Naturally I limped across the garden pretty damn sharpish to switch the generator off before we all witnessed the effect of high octane fuel in a compression ignition engine.  A few months ago, I would have killed him but instead heard a strange man (who turned out to be me) congratulating him for having the courage to admit his mistake early enough for me to prevent disaster.  Together we spent the rest of the evening draining and swabbing out the tank and flushing the fuel system.  While we were at it, we swabbed the waste oil swilling about the bottom of the canopy as well.  To be truthful, he did all the swabbing while I held the torch and puffed on my e-cig giving him the benefit of avuncular advice.

I get tired early in the evening and recognize the value of putting my leg up (rather than over) so retire to my room to read a book, Winnie the Pooh.  Together Alex and I make hot chocolate, ensure we have an adequate supply of choccy biscuits and lay together propped up in bed while we read all about Pooh’s adventures.  I can think of many fine ways to end a productive day and this ranks high among them.

I realize I haven’t written of the unexpected trip to Dubai I mentioned in my last post or of that other, far more mysterious place twixt England and the Irish Sea I ventured into or properly thanked the good friends who stepped in and helped me while I was in England but I think the glue must have set by now on Marcia’s car and I really should finish off the installation of her new headlights before sunset.  Araldite was perhaps the most useful purchase I made in England, by the way.  The presents went down well but a surprising hit were the bags of Pork Scratchings I used as shock absorbing packing around the more fragile purchases.

For supper tonight I have prepared a mild chicken curry with a peanut and coconut cream sauce.  First time I have cooked in months so things are definitely looking up although I notice that along with my tools, some bastard has nicked all my chef’s knives…
Alex with a fine example of British engineering and some children
who would be unlucky to learn engineering.from the Portuguese. 
Dawes made weapons and supplied bikes to the British Army during the world wars
and we won, twice, so their bikes must be good.


Monday 9 June 2014

Going Home

I am sorry I have not posted any updates but things have been pretty hectic since I left hospital a week ago.  There is much to tell, including of a trip to Dubai, of immaculately kept houses being redecorated, villagers so orderly they wash their rubbish before disposing of it in aseptic bins but I shall save all that until I am back in the bosom of my much missed family.

This morning I had an appointment at the Royal Free where I was given a qualified OK To Travel.  Qualified in the sense that I told them I would not be able to make the next appointment they wished me to attend at the London School of Tropical Medicine on the 9th of July as it was my intention to be on the 'plane back to Angola tomorrow night.  I hate letting people down so abruptly but after looking after me for so many weeks, they really should have known I would, like the swallow in autumn, be flying south as soon as they left the cage door open.

And my first port of call on leaving the hospital was not a tobacconist; I have given up smoking as well.  What is left of me shall return home to Marcia a new man.

Normal service will resume shortly....