Chances are, you probably won’t be visiting Angola anytime soon … but it’s always good to be prepared. Here’s a starting point.
1. The capital city of Luanda is now the most expensive city in the world—by far. Forget Tokyo, Moscow, or even your good friends up in Equatorial Guinea—Luanda wins.
Here’s how the Economist added up a few typical costs recently:
Monthly Apartment Rental: $10,000-15,000
Mediocre Hotel Room: $400/night
Hotel Breakfast: $75
Non-Alcoholic Drink: $10
Average Taxi Ride: $50
Mellon at Supermarket: $100 (!)
2. Before you can earn the right to purchase such bargains as the disappointing $75 breakfast buffet or the $100 melon that is not actually encrusted in gold, you must first obtain entry to the country. To do so, you begin by requesting a “letter of invitation” which allows you to apply (and pay for) an actual invitation in the form of a visa. My letter of invitation cost $450. My visa application then cost $141, in addition to processing fees and two-way FedEx charges.
3. You next ensure that everything is in order with your application, having procured the $450 letter, written in Portuguese by a local agency and submitted to the New York consulate courtesy of a processing service, which also charges a fee. You might have already purchased your plane ticket and made non-refundable hotel reservations, since proof of both actions is required before applying for the visa. And then you might wait twelve days without your passport, under the assurances that everything will be fine.
4. Two days before you are scheduled to travel, you might discover that your passport has been returned to you, without the necessary visa, without the fee you paid to apply, and without any reason or explanation at all.
5. You might spend the next two days frantically phoning the unfriendly consulate, only to have your calls go unanswered or unreturned.
6. Thus you might find yourself in a difficult situation: what to do? Your itinerary can no longer be rerouted. At least eight flights involving three continents are connected to each other in a certain order for a certain reason. Time is also running out on a certain goal you set for yourself more than five years ago.
7. You might also remember the successes of the past—being the first Western traveler to crash Karachi with no visa, that weird weekend in Saudi Arabia where you also arrived without a visa, and other things you’ve vowed not to tell anyone until the whole quest is over. (“What happens in Erbil stays in Erbil.”)
8. Thus you might say hell-yeah and board your Lufthansa flight for Luanda anyway, hoping for the best. The way you get on a flight without permission to visit the destination country is also better saved for another time.
9. Reading up further on other travelers’ experiences in Luanda, however, you might feel a bit discouraged prior to arrival. The local airport requires you to check in four hours’ early? Boarding time is two hours before the actual flight? You can’t take any amount of local currency into or out of the country, and the customs officers request an inspection of your wallet before flying out, pocketing any cash for themselves? Taxis turn on their meters while driving around by themselves, then require you to pay the balance before agreeing to take you to your destination? Wow. As the saying goes, you’re not in Kazakhstan anymore.
Upon becoming aware of such facts, you might not feel very excited about visiting Angola. Seasoned traveler that you are, and lover of the African continent, you nevertheless might have a sense of trepidation about popping into Luanda before going on to Johannesburg and the more-anticipated Malawi. The part about not having a visa or speaking more than five words of Portuguese doesn’t help either.
And thus you might be surprised, because when you arrive on the other side of the curtain at 4am, it’s not so bad after all. English translators are rustled up. Everyone smiles. People say “no problem” and are genuinely helpful. You sort out your visa issue without paying any money or being thrown into jail. Sitting outside on a bench two hours later, someone offers you a ride into town—no charge.
Your extremely limited number of Portuguese phrases now include, “Have a nice trip,” since you hear it three different times on the way back out. The wallet inspection is a little creepy, but since you paid for things in dollars and never exchanged currency, you don’t lose anything.
Thus, you might concede, everything is relative. You probably won’t rent a second apartment in downtown Luanda (hang on to that spare $15,000 a month), you don’t need any $100 melons, and you’re thankful to have traveled with an ample supply of granola bars in your carry-on bag.
The odds of returning here might, in fact, be quite low—but, truth be told, you might also be glad you came.