Filed under: *Travel Diary
I stumbled out of the Hospital in Ganda half blind, followed by Jim who was still gripping his stomach as it continued to seize up with cramps and spasms. I’m not entirely sure where Paulo was. I sort of remember him there just at the periphery of my vision as we tried to find the pharmacy and buy the various medications that we needed. The first place we went to carried heavy duty pain relievers which seemed to suit Jim, but didn’t have my eye drops. I made my way out and vaguely moved in the direction of the other pharmacy, with Jim still trailing behind, popping pills and Paulo somewhere there at the edge of my vision floating along in the same direction.
The two Cuban doctors we met in Lobito that lived and worked in Ganda, Maria and Lacey, weren’t at the hospital. There was some sort of party for medical professionals in the countryside and all the doctors in town seem to have gone. So to tell the truth, I’m not entirely certain who it was who examined me, diagnosed my eye infection and prescribed the drops. He came in wearing a light blue mask over his mouth and nose and never took it off throughout the whole time I was sitting with him. When he wrote the prescription, it took a long time, as if he hadn’t done this very often and was very carefully repeating things he had seen before, trying to remember just precisely how it went. He wrote out the name of the medication, but spelled it differently than what was on the box when I finally got it. Something remarkable though: I didn’t pay a dime for the visit, and if I was prepared to wait until the next morning, I could have come back and picked up the medication for free. Not necessarily a place well known for its medical services, Angola proved to have a more sane, affordable and effective medical system than in the United States. Anyway…
I picked up my drops at the next place and we stumbled off to the market to change some money and grab a beer at the end of what had been an extremely long and exhausting day of work. As we took the back alleyways to the market, some old guy drove by on his motor bike shouting in Umbundu, “white people white people”which just cracked up Paulo.
At the market, there was some guy in a long black coat who ended up being our bank changing dollars for Kwanzaa (the rates were way better on the coast). Satisfied, we found some sort of “bar” at the edge of all the market, sat down, and ordered some Cucas (actually Jim ordered a coca cola with salt – which had proved to be the only thing that somewhat eased the pain), and I leaned back to drop some magic juice in my eyes and pray it would work.
About a half hour later, our young street banker in the black coat found us at the bar and held out the 100 dollar bill that Jim gave him. He said it was dated 1996 and that they couldn’t accept bills from that year for some reason. 2006 was fine,though, so I exchanged it with another bill I had. He was happy, ran off, and we drank out beers and salty cokes.
As it got darker and darker and the market was cleared out, this little part of town started to get friskier. Next door music started to blare and some chubby woman just began to dance. We ordered more beers and the friends of the owner, who were hanging out, got us to but them a beer as well. The heavy set one was from Lobito and said that her cousin had a club in town where you could go dance on Wednesdays. I’m not sure what day it was, but it wasn’t Wednesday, so we just watched the chubby woman next door start to get her groove on. The music changed from this upbeat Semba to this song that you heard everywhere you went all over Angola these past few weeks. I don’t know what the song was, but it was sort of bitter sweet. It had a punchy rhythm with a soft almost lamenting melody over it. The woman kept on dancing.
Then suddenly a guy shows up. Chinese. He walks in past us and goes up to the dancing woman. They talk for a bit and then a man comes out, they all talk and laugh and then go inside together. I can’t believe my eyes. I ask the women who had been bumming drinks off of us who he was and they said, he comes every night. A Chinese guy who worked nearby. He comes to buy cigarettes, pursed her lips together and rolled her eyes.
Just like I had been doing since I arrived to Angola, whenever I saw a Chinese person, I would get up and lurch over to them and start a conversation. It was like a weird compulsive disorder that I had. And this moment was particularly remarkable, because we were in the hood, basically, and it was the first time that I had seen a Chinese person in a musseque at night. I got up and tried to find him, looking into the various rooms. Eventually he came out. I said “hi” and I started the peculiar ritual I had developed in which I try to figure out where they are from by drawing a map of china on the ground with a twig and eventually showing the Chinese characters on my USA Shaolin t-shirt to try to explain where I am from. He spoke a little hit of Portuguese, so it was possible to communicate. I invited him over for a drink. By the time we got back over to our table, Jim was doing some sort of slinky lambada-kizomba thing with one of the women, while Paulo was sitting at the table, scrunching up his face and peering out at the world as if from under a hoodie.
We sat down and started to talk. The man, around fifty years old, was extremely animated and at ease and liked to talk. He explained how his wife and grown child were back in China and how she cried on the phone every time they talked asking when he will come home. He mimed her crying and then sort of chuckled and shrugged his shoulders. Such was life. He drives the one modern transport train (the Comboio) which shuttles back and forth between Ganda and Cubal carrying building supplies and other things for the construction of the railway and other projects. We had seen the train both leaving in the morning and coming back in to town in the early evening (on our way to the hospital) tooting it’s horn both times.
He asked if we had a place to stay the night because if not, we were welcome to sleep in his train. Which I guess is where he slept as well. I asked if he was hungry because we were planning on eating something but he explained that he had just cooked himself dinner and had already eaten. Unlike many of the other Chinese people we had met up until then in Angola, he was seemed quite solitary and free to do as he liked. I had the feeling that either he was solely responsible for this transport train or was part of an extremely small crew. At any rate, it was an unusual position and maybe because of his freedom and lack of predetermined Chinese community, he was free to come to the neighborhood and buy cigarettes, hang out and intermingle with Angolans in a way that many other people that we met seemed reluctant or simply unable to do.
The woman who had danced with Jim, bummed a drink off me and who had rolled her eyes when talking about the Comboio driver buying cigarettes called across the room and said that if we weren’t there, he would be asking to kiss her. It just sort of passed through the space and no one paid it much mind, but a whole vision of this man’s life slowly started to emerge. And then, just as suddenly as he had arrived, he excused himself and disappeared into the night.
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