We stay in Benguela with Tony – an old friend from when I last visited the country two years ago. Benguela is the by far strongest memory of my previous travels. That time, I met Tony and Dinho in town and ended up staying with them for almost three weeks. We did practically nothing, but still I enjoyed life better than I had ever done before. It was like as if I had found what is actually important in life – pure friendship. We didn’t have to go to the movies or clubs – just hang about was good enough.
That time, I hadn’t even planned to travel to Angola to begin with, but once there it became my favorite place on the whole continent. A laid-back life, a beautiful beach, beautiful people – and for once in Africa, Benguela was also a beautiful city. We used to wake up an hour or two before noon, go visit some friend, watch some TV, listen to music, chat, eat. In the evenings, we went to the local bar where we had a few Cuca (beer) and baguette with grilled chicken, ketchup and mayonnaise. It was me, Tony, Dinho and all their friends. In the Cuban blocks where they lived, everyone was family.
I also remember the melancholy. Dinho went home to his wife in the early evening. He sat watching over her at the bedside. She was asleep with their first child still in her belly. Maybe it was Dinho’s somewhat sad and troubled, big eyes more than his overall look that made me think of Pablo Picasso, and call him Pablo ever since. I got the feeling that in Benguela no-one wanted to let go of the youth and the freedom and friendship that can only exist as long as you don’t work from nine to five and pick the kids up from the daycare center by 5.30 p.m every day. In Benguela, the guys were ‘Forever Young.’ And they wouldn’t let this thing with wife and kids to change that.
Now when I return, Tony and his girlfriend have just got their first child, Clara Nayole, and we will stay for another ten days so that we can attend their wedding. But despite the family-making, it’s still the same friends that meet by the bar in the evening to talk about life, drink Cuca and eat grilled chicken with ketchup and mayonnaise. The only difference is that Tony once or twice a week goes to his new, own home instead of his mother’s, to take care of his family – and that the evenings and the nights maybe end a little, little bit earlier than before.
Benguela is still as beautiful and somehow magic as before. Full of movement. Not physical motion, but feelings; different times present at the same time. I get shivers just thinking about it, but it’s difficult to describe. The Portuguese buildings are like theater backdrops; the streets below them like stages for the people of Benguela. Times fly past each other – some don’t exist; others survive through eternity. It is difficult to explain, but it’s beautiful!
“Sunday is over; the weekend is over,” Dinho says and throws away the bottle top of the beer he’s just finished. It jingles as it hits the concrete floor of the inner yard. “Tomorrow work – day of struggle,” Dinho says and continues, “If some rich man comes by and offers my wife a better life – no problem. Most important is that she is well-off. Sometimes no food on the table. Only sleep. Sometimes in my room. Light’s off. Springsteen. I’m crying.”
“You know this guy,” Dinho says as he puts on one of the CDs that I left him two years ago. When I first visited Benguela, I had brought with me a few CDs with a mix of my favorite music. On two of them was Springsteen, and most tracks were live recordings from a bootleg called ‘New Jersey Nights.’ Amongst them were a couple of powerful, emotional versions of Racing in the Streets and Independence Day. Dinho loved them from the very first time. I was happy that he liked the same music as me, but more than that I thought about how this music in particular tuned in with the life here. To be in Benguela is like living one of those tracks. Here, Springsteens lyrics intertwine with life and become reality; truth. It is that magical feeling of motion that I described earlier, and the immensely strong friendship. That feeling comes with the lyrics of Springsteen’s music, as well as on the streets of Benguela.
Benguela would be the perfect tourist destination. A beach within walking distance from the city centre, lined by palm trees, and a perfect climate of 25 to 30 degrees Celsius year-round. But where the beach walk at a charter destination would have been lined with curio salesmen, a beautiful calm instead prevails Benguela. The only thing that comes even close to touristy is a gallery accommodated in the ground floor of one of the many beautiful, old Portuguese houses. Benguela is like Malaga but without a single tourist or salesman. Calm and beautiful. And the Angolans are the most peaceful people I’ve met – not even other Africans can compare with them. And in Angola, there is no black or white; there are barely even shades of grey. We are all the same, all family. We are together.
Between the tarred road and the wide beach is an as wide boardwalk. Benches of stone, worn smooth by years of human repose under the shadows of the pine and palm trees. A knee-high railing of concrete separates the boardwalk from the beach. People sit down; meet friends, read or study. But most just are. Some do sports; a few swim in the ocean. There is a net for beach volleyball tightened between two poles on the beach, but I never see anyone use it. There are the same number of people on weekdays as on weekends. The sun is just enough warm and there is a constant, cool breeze from the sea. The boardwalk is paved with small black and white stones. A pattern of waves polished by decades of Angolans looking for a chill in the water. Outside a nearby church, the stones are laid in patterns of fishes and crosses; outside a school they resemble children holding each others’ hands in a long line of friendship.
The policemen that patrol the beach pass their time by letting a couple of young shoeshining boys polish their shoes. The lean boys kneel before them. The policemen put their authoritarian, black boots on the boys’ wooden boxes and let them be polished even though spotless already. The boys look up, demeaned.
On their heads, women carry dishes with bananas and oranges that they sell. Their children are wrapped against their backs in colorful sheets. A boy walks back and forth selling soft drinks from a cooler wagon that he pushes ahead of himself.
Halfway along the promenade, a monument over slavery rises. With a bit of fantasy, it resembles a clenched fist, reaching up towards the sky and out towards the ocean. A line of wooden poles stretches out in the water. It is the remains of the pier on which slaves were brought out to the ships centuries ago, Tony once told me.
After a week or so in town, I get malaria again. And cholera at the same time. Hospital for three nights. Terrible diarrhea and high fewer. Seven liters of drip and medication. A Russian (or Soviet, as the Angolans still say) doctor comes at noon each day to consult me and the other patients, but leaves after a couple of hours’ visit. The nurses don’t seem too serious: “How many injections have we given you today?” one asks. “Why have you taken our papers?” another inquires, referring to the receipt the doctor gave me to keep. They had forgotten what medicine they’d prescribed me, I guess.