Vainly Seeking an Adventurous Streak in West Africa

Day 77, Grand World Voyage

Tuesday, March 21, 2023; Luanda, Angola.

Don’t we all like to think of ourselves as travelers who would rise to the challenge: “To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before?” To travel like Tony Bourdain and try every street food you come across? To venture into places unlike home, meeting people who live entirely different lives?

I know I would. But if I’m honest, I’m not that adventurous. I like to feel in control. I like to travel in comfort. I like flush toilets. I want to taste those delicious-looking tomatoes, but I pass on them while recalling a severe case of Montezuma’s revenge in Mexico during my teen years.

These next few ports are showing a side of me that I wish were different. Luanda, Angola, is the first of five cities on the west coast of Africa we will visit this month. None of them are typical cruise ship destinations. We will moor in container ports, not sunny Caribbean Islands or quaint Alaskan towns. Few people may speak English, and there isn’t much tourism infrastructure.

As a result, the few ship excursions are very expensive (usually $200 and up) and even then, already sold out.

This brings up the uncomfortable subject of safety. I don’t want to assume that different places aren’t safe places, but I know that we would be unwise to venture out in some of these ports. The ship issued warnings that we should be careful when going ashore. Don’t wear jewelry or flash any cash. Stay in groups and be careful where you go. Of course, these warnings could be the same in Barcelona, known for its pickpocketing, and other more “western” cities.

In Luanda today, we took a shuttle bus to the port entrance. I saw more than a few women balanced buckets or baskets on their heads, piled high with heavy goods.

Vendors set up a few dozen booths in the square across the street, and we joined many of our fellow passengers in browsing through the wares. They mainly consisted of brightly colored dresses and waxed fabric but also included some paintings, jewelry and wooden carvings.

The market was full of locals, some who seemed just curious about us and others who were eager to make a sale, but no one was pushy or pursued us. A tourist information booth was giving away Angolan flags (with a noticeably Soviet design) to those who made donations.

Across the street was the modern-looking El Presidente Hotel, which had a bar on the eighth floor with free WIFI. In front, a group of locals found a tree to be a good place to hang their backpacks. We weren’t looking for drinks or WIFI so returned to the ship after an hour.

Friends who took orientation-type tours said they had good guides who spoke excellent English. That’s not always the case. Laurie Tillett shared a photo of a shantytown on the beach (she said they are everywhere), the beautiful interior and her Facebook post of a mural with a short history lesson.

Another friend reported that her seven-vehicle caravan was led by a police motorcycle. “They stopped traffic for us, we went through all the red lights, had reserved parking right in front of what we were touring.” More than one person commented about locals taking their pictures, perhaps because there are so few white people in Angola. There might be a better reason.

I am committed to getting off the ship in our next four ports, if at least to say I was in the country. I’m not sure it counts as checking it off, if I’ve seen nothing beyond the pier. And it certainly isn’t a good way to learn too much about these places.

In Banjul, Gambia, I have an all-day tour to a slave-trading station and what is now named “Kunta Kinteh” Island. And in Dakar, Senegal, I’m joining fellow passengers for an overview tour and more about the slave trade. Not your usual tourist sites, but it’s a part of our history that I believe we need to understand and acknowledge.