Should you ever find yourself in Yenagoa, the capital of Bayelsa State in Nigeria, I can recommend a Chinese restaurant there which is well worth not going to. Should you have a craving for Chinese food (like I did), don’t go to the Sweet Tomatoes restaurant on Azikoro Road – go instead to a supermarket, buy a bottle of soy sauce, and take it to either the Creek Motel or the Mona Lisa Hotel, where you can enjoy the buffet. Sprinkle the soy sauce on your food and hey presto! It’s Chinese!
The wonderfully-named Sweet Tomatoes used to be the Royal Chinese Restaurant, run by Chinese people, who have left, the name was changed, and everything went to pot. We expected as much when, after taking our order, the guy gets on the phone and we hear “you’ve got to get back here, we’ve got customers”.
Twice the staff confirmed that everything on the menu was available, but of course when I ordered the prawns, they had none. So I ordered the fish, which looked suspiciously like shredded beef when it arrived. The waiter was unable to confirm what it was, after all, he’s only the guy that carries the food from the counter to the table.
Did I tell you about the décor? There wasn’t any, it was a black hole as far as ambience was concerned.
The manager (no, sorry, that’s far too official-sounding, let’s call him…….oh, I don’t know, the guy that……well, the guy that didn’t know what was available, didn’t listen when we ordered, and didn’t offer any drinks….what’s the word? Nope, it’s gone). So, this guy in a green tee shirt told me I had ordered the shredded beef. To a chorus of “no he didn’t” from my ever-supportive companion, I asked green-tee-shirt-man which bit of the order “stir-fried fish with ginger and spring onions” sounded like “shredded beef”. Take this away, I commanded, and bring me what I ordered. Green-tee-shirt-man gets on the phone, and then comes up with the startling news that they had no fish.
When I asked for the bill he brought back the shredded beef, now stone cold. Well “bill starts with a “B”, and beef starts with a “B”……
The beer was warm, the glass was cracked, – oh, what’s the point? Just don’t go there, OK? And don’t forget my TTT (Trevor’s Travellers’ Tip) about the soy sauce.
Happy Travels! Trevor
I’m staying at the Hotel Presidente, the old one at the north end of the Marginal. Great views of the bay (which is fast disappearing, as they sand-fill – catch it while you can). Apart from the strange shade of green paint that they have used (at some time in the past, a painter stood back, looked at his work, and said “My, that looks good”. What kind of sick person IS that?), the physical hotel isn’t too bad, old and tired, but aren’t we all? But my tip for staying here is to avoid contact with the staff AT ALL TIMES. OK, grin and bear it at check in, insist that your name IS what you wrote on the registration slip (twice) and what it says in your passport, regardless of what the receptionist wants your name to be, and you might get the room you reserved. After that, DON’T have anything to do with any of them – the objective of them all is to p*ss off the guests at every point of contact. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
The internet service in the bar is good – just ask at the bar for the code, you don’t need to buy anything, and you don’t have to be staying in the hotel either – but you may need to bluff that out – room numbers start on the 9th floor, 901 to 914, 1001 to 1014 – got that?
I just came into Luanda again (did someone say “masochist”?) and the left hand lane went the fastest, as it was feeding into three desks. Yes, I know, it’s a bit sad to get excited about things like this, but it keeps me going).
If you’re travelling with other people, elect the biggest one of you to get the arrivals forms, and the rest of you go and queue. Your large colleague can take all the vaccination certificates to wave one at a time, or just use one, result should be the same.
Fill in the form best you can – avoid filling in “masochism” as the reason for entry to Angola, just in case the immigration official knows the word, and has a sense of humour failure. The consequences don’t bear thinking about.
Baggage seems to arrive recently efficiently, but I can’t speak for experience. Me? Check in luggage? Don’t be silly.
After customs, and before you leave the building, there’s a Unitel mobile phone shop on the right – they’ll stiff you on the price and on the exchange rate, but who cares, if like me your UK line (O2) doesn’t roam in Angola* (except in the far north, when you can often roam onto a DR Congo network!), then with a local SIM card you’re back in the wired world. There’s a bank there for buying local currency, too (although most places in town accept dollars). No particular hassle from touts and other ne’er-do-wells when you exit, but I have always been met, so no tips about taxis, sorry.
(BREAKING NEWS February 2009 – O2 now roams in Luanda, ).
Just arrived Luanda. Hasn’t changed (yeah, well, see below, this was 2008, it’s a bit different in 2010) – total chaos in the arrivals hall . If you can, dress as an American football player when arriving here – you might get less bruised. You’ll get the idea when you see the entrance – as small as a house door, so that’s the first scrummage – actually getting into the building (your shoulder pads might get in the way, but you’ll be thankful for them in a minute).
Inside, head for the crowd of people waving yellow bits of paper, put your head down, and push into it. There’s a guy in the middle, a health official, who seems completely oblivious to the noise and commotion around him or her, who stamps the arrival forms, and gives them out to the hands in front of him. He’s a saint, he’s being pushed from behind by half of China, more hands waving papers at him than he, or anyone else for that matter, could shake a stick at, and he just keeps on stamping those forms. We could all learn a lesson from him – if you could ever get near enough.
You see, here in Angola, that’s how they do it. You need a Yellow Fever Vaccination Certificate to enter the country. In South Africa, the immigration officer checks it alongside your passport. Here, they have a health official – ONE health official, for the entire arrivals hall, picture it, two or more long-haul flights arriving at the same time – show him your certificate (actually, anyone’s will do, see below), you get the arrivals form, which you then give to the immigration officer. Guess it creates employment.
But there’s only ONE of them – when you consider that half of China is entering Angola at the same time, pretty noisy and not that good at queuing, you’ll begin to realise that American football gear is not fancy dress, it’s practical gear. Surely there must be someone else in Angola who would like to try their hand at being a health official?
Tips for tackling this scrum? Use the elbows God gave you (NOW do you understand why they’re sharp?), put your head down, shove your certificate forward, and don’t give an inch. Watch out for the short people trying to get in below you.
You forgot your Yellow Fever certificate? 3 options:
Join the immigration queue and fill in the form whilst queuing – you’ve normally got plenty of time. It’s up to you whether you adopt the English or the African method of queuing. The queue on the right tends to move faster, but if you’re on the left, they might open the “Nationals only” lane to foreigners. However, watch out for half of China moving en-masse to that queue – they’re surprisingly fast!
I flew from Lagos to Malabo, the island capital of Equatorial Guinea, last week.
Malabo airport is a distinct improvement from the muddy concrete hut I remember from six years ago. All the same, it’s the first airport I have arrived at where the immigration officer gives you the finger. We’re off the plane, and I’m first in the queue for passport control. The guy at the desk waves a sheaf of blank arrival forms at me, and tells me to go and wait at the red line for someone to hand them out. May I have one of those? No, go and wait. So I get the form, I fill it in, I go back to the desk, I hand him my passport, he fusses with it.
And then gives me the finger.
How jolly rude, I think. Que? (I say, in my best Spanish). The finger again. One what? I enquire politely, this time in English. The finger for the third time, this time with a gesture to the little hole in the wall. Aha, fingerprint time, both hands, and a photo. Very wise, you never know what rascals are trying to get into your country these days. Five minutes later, he’s finished with me. I look pityingly at the queue behind me, and silently wish them a pleasant night queuing for the immigration man to get through them all. Then there’s customs, or maybe security, who search you thoroughly (I long for the somewhat laxer methods applied in Lagos, where a languid moving of a shirt or two, whilst staring over your shoulder, seems to suffice). Watch for the boy in the pink shirt who now latches on to you, asks if you have yellow fever (he means a vaccination certificate), which you then show to the two ladies guarding the exit door. Malabo arrivals is a funnel system, so I am now at the narrowest part, at customs/medical check, at the exit door (a single door), with the other half of China (see arriving in Luanda for the whereabouts of the first half) trying to squeeze through, and several million Africans trying to get in. Just push.
The next morning, I flew from Malabo to Bata, the country’s second city, located on the mainland. And blow me, but what happens at the domestic arrivals in Bata? The finger again, both of them, the photo, police searching my bag, very thoroughly, and customs too. Yes, customs, on a domestic flight. That was a surprise, I tell you. I told the customs guy I had already been searched a couple of yards back (there was a screen in between, so I thought maybe he didn’t know, and I could save him a job?), but he says he’s customs, they were police. And then proceeds to search my bag with a spiteful, “I’ll get you” demeanour. Not for the first time, I wish I had kept my mouth shut, truly a passive indifference works much better.
Leaving Bata for Malabo wasn’t so bad, customs only searched the Chinese travellers, but fingers and photos? – I’m used to them now. Right hand, left hand, glasses off for the camera……Then they call you to board the bus for the aircraft, and outside the door they’re searching your bags again, doing the security scan with the wand. These guys are scared of something!
Travellers’ Tips – well, try to be first in line, unless you have hours to spare. Keep your mouth shut unless absolutely necessary. If asked, claim to be Welsh – a certain Mr Mann has given the English a bad name in this country (Google “Mann Equatorial Guinea” if you need to know more – but don’t print it and put it in your luggage). And just go with the flow, stay cool, even when they give you the finger.
In Malabo – the best hotel in town is the Sofitel, next to the Presidential Palace. I’ve not stayed there, but it looks nice. The waterfront restaurant at the Hotel Bahia is pleasant, with English speaking waiters. In Bata – the Hotel Plaza is good enough, the Oriental Restaurant on the seafront has great Lebanese mezze, and there’s a great beachside restaurant outside of town, beyond the airport, run by a French lady. A lovely place for a lazy lunch. I hear it is the place to go at weekends, with safe swimming, and there are a few chalets to stay in too.
Leaving Malabo – the finger again, of course. Apart from that, nothing much to report – oh, except that you will need to show your Yellow Fever certificate again on the way out of the country. Don’t ask. And don’t expect any duty free – I couldn’t see any! There’s a business lounge upstairs, no-one asked me whether I was in business class or not, so may be worth the chance, for a comfy chair. Except that I spent the whole time there worrying whether they would remember to call me for my flight. Maybe not worth THAT risk.
Real life, huh? Can you believe it? You watch the TV sitcoms, and think “how silly, it could never happen”. Read on.
The safe in my hotel bedroom won’t open. Inside is stuff I need, passport, air ticket, money, spare toothbrush, a used train ticket, yesterday’s socks and a boiled sweet, the things you just don’t want to be without. It’s 11pm, and I’m leaving for the airport in the morning, so we need to sort this tonight. Easy job normally, seen it done, you need a clever little gadget.
Phone call to reception, and within a few minutes there’s a knock on the door, a man with a smart briefcase, out of which, I am happy to see, he takes a clever little gadget for opening electronic safes. Great, this won’t take long.
He plugs it in, and taps away for a few minutes (actually quite a lot of tapping, I thought you just typed in “open sesame”, and Bob’s your uncle, or doesn’t that work anymore? Abracadabra?), but nothing happens. He changes the battery in the front panel of the safe (which comes off if you know how, it’s attached by a wire to the innards), but nothing happens. He taps away again, nothing. Safe still closed. He makes a phone call and tells me “Our IT man is on his way, but he has left the hotel, and will be here in an hour”. Jeez, another hour? Well, it has to be done, make sure you knock hard when he arrives, I may be asleep.
Sometime later, the promised hard knock arrives, I was asleep, in bed, Mr IT enters the room. There are two of them, Mr Briefcase is with him. In my room. Mr IT (I was tempted to call him Mr Bugs, due to a rather unfortunate dental challenge, but that would be unfair, we’ll stick with his official title) tries again with the clever gadget, and nothing happens. He fiddles with the wires, but that doesn’t work. So he decides to go to the next room and get a replacement panel from the safe there.
This, dear reader, is where it all goes pear-shaped.
He and Mr Briefcase exit my room, and put the double lock on so it won’t close. I am still in bed, remember, and wasn’t ready to get out and hold doors for them. I should have. They come back with the replacement panel, fit it to my safe, fiddle around, and my safe is open. Hurrah. I say many thanks, well done, good night. “Sorry for the inconvenience sir, please don’t close your safe again, just to be sure”. OK, I won’t. I close my eyes. It’s midnight.
Mr IT and Mr Briefcase exit my room, but forget the double lock is on, so of course the door doesn’t close. They both re-enter my room, get the double lock off with difficulty, close the door to make sure it is now OK – and cannot open the door again. The sitcom begins.
Mr IT and Mr Briefcase are locked in my room, with yours truly.
Mr IT fiddles and fiddles (sorry to keep repeating that word, but there was a lot of it going on that night) but, no, the door doesn’t open. He tries to get the handle off, but needs a screwdriver (that wasn’t my assessment, it was his, he said it), none in sight (memo to self – in future, pack a clever little gadget to open electronic safes, and a screwdriver). Next thing I know, he goes out onto my balcony, and launches himself off! I’m on the second floor! But all is well, he returns 5 minutes later with a screwdriver. Fiddle, fiddle (sorry), nothing happens. The door lock is now in pieces, but the door remains closed. I’m still in bed, opening my eyes now and again. Couldn’t see much point in joining in, I’ll stay in the audience. After all, it is them that need to get out, I can wait until morning, and in any case there is still the balcony exit route, recently used to great effect by Mr IT.
I open my eyes, and lo and behold, there are now three of them, all huddling at my door, looking as if they are playing hide and seek, with someone else, now audible in the corridor, trying to find them (“come out, come out, wherever you are”). The third is dressed as Mr Maintenance Man, so that’s what we will call him (Mr MM for short). Where did he come from? He must have vaulted up from the ground floor to my second floor balcony, and in whilst I had my eyes closed (the presence of a ladder cannot, of course, be discounted, but “vaulted” sounds so much better than “climbed”)
There are now, as anyone conversant with the art and science of arithmetic will confirm, three people (not including me) in my room – Mr MM, newly arrived, Mr Briefcase, who has, on and off, been with me now for 2 hours, and Mr IT. I remain in the audience, taking photographs of the assembled team.
Fiddle, fiddle (sorry) by Mr MM, and the door opens, the door lock still in pieces. Mr MM2 (Mr MM’s twin, perhaps, they were dressed the same?) enters, and Mr Briefcase departs (it’s possible that there is a house rule that only three staff members are allowed to fiddle around in a guest’s room at any one time).
It is not over.
Mr MM, Mr MM2 and Mr IT are now together, bent over my door lock, trying to get the door to close, and to open again. It is not to be. It is 1am. They suggest I should change rooms. At 1am.
I arise (you haven’t, I trust, forgotten that I am abed), and cry “Enough. It is 1am, gentlemen, the door is now open, you have done well, now go, allow me to sleep, I will leave the door open, but with the chain on. Do not close the door when you leave”.
So that, dear reader, is why there were three people in my room that night. Perfectly simple, when you stop and think about it.
And my Tips? If your safe won’t open, don’t leave it to the last minute to get them to open it, you never know how many people you will need. And to avoid forgetting to empty the safe when you leave the hotel (it happens!), put one of the shoes you’re planning to wear when you leave in front of the safe door. I’ve never done it, I can never remember, but it sounds like a good plan to me. Anyone got a good tip for how to remember to use this tip??!
Reports emerging from the Centre of Excellence, aka Lagos, reveal that an alarming shortage of soy sauce has hit the city. Our intrepid resident, Trevor the Ward reports in a state of shock. ” I no lie! It's a true! The Oriental Hotel, that Chinese built, owned, designed, outfitted, cuisined(?!), get the gist, it's PRC all over, has NO SOY SAUCE!”. Said the waiter, who said his name was Tunde, but asked not be named “My name is Tunde. I sent for it the soy sauce, then I asked the Chinese kitchen for some, they said 'we n
o have am' (bruddy riars), so I sent to the Chinese Restaurant for some (oh yes, I got the smarts, me), they said 'we no have am'. Mr Trevor said he couldn't believe me, I should go across to the Four Points Hotel and get some. That's not funny, Mr Trevor”.
So, the TTT from Yenagoa applies to Lagos too – Bring a Bottle means “tuck a little bottle of soy sauce in your handbag”!
Where will this end! (breaking news – Trevor's about to ask for Chinese Tea.
Don't do it, Trevor!)