A little known fact; for foreigners, Luanda is the most expensive city in the world. While most Angolans live in poverty, expatriates pay upwards of $15-20,000 a month to rent a 3BR house. A moderate dinner typically costs $100 per person, and a 3-star hotel room will run at least $300 a night.
Yikes. When I wasn’t waiting in traffic, I spent most of my time in Luanda marveling at the prices. Of strawberry jam, of meat and toilet paper and motor oil. All very, very expensive.
I wish I knew more about history and economics to be able to explain why prices are so high. I read that during the Angolan Civil War (1975-2002), families thronged to Luanda. It was farther away from the fighting. The large surge in population put stress on the city. The government–getting rich from oil and diamond revenue–has since heavily invested in Luanda infrastructure. Like Dubai just a few years ago, cranes poke out of the skyline. New roads are lain, even a new airport is under construction. Unlike Dubai, however, Luanda isn’t nearly as organized. There’s government corruption. Many of the buildings are broken. Sidewalks are puddled and attract malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
The traffic is abysmal. Not as bad as Lagos, Nigeria, but close. Idled in the city’s cramped streets, a thick layer of carbon monoxide hangs in the air. Hawkers meander from car to car, selling anything and everything. Mouse pads, air freshener, cold sodas, clocks, mini-violins, toilet seats, hats, socks and pirated DVDs. Hustling in the finest sense of hustling there is. It’s a wild scene. Just off the streets lie barbed wire, scaffolding, dust, trash and exposed sewers, indicators of a city that’s running too fast for it’s own good. In the distance, ratty soccer goals line the sandy shore. At the end of Ilha de Luanda, a skinny and posh peninsula that juts out from the center of the city, an oil rig stands tall.
One afternoon, I helped my driver pay off the police to get out of a traffic violation.
Side Trip to Soyo
This particular cost-of-living study required a few nights in Soyo, a small city at the northwestern-most part of the country, bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Accommodation at one of our client’s oil camps had been arranged. The first afternoon, I was asked to participate in a mandatory site orientation. Ben, a large man who spoke in a slow, southern drawl, outlined the camps facilities. “They have a big incinerator there, sometimes it work, sometimes it don’t.” Ben mentioned that over 1,000 snakes had been relocated from the camp over the last year. Forest and black spitting cobras, gaboon vipers, and Jameson’s mambas. Not to mention the killer bees, wasps, scorpions and spiders. I made sure to stay on the path.
I was escorted around town by several of the expatriate wives. They’re probably the most hardcore foreign workers I’ve ever met. These women have lived all over the world, for years, in places like Kazakhstan and Nigeria. One of them took me through Soyo’s largest outdoor market.
At first, Angola was slow to issue me a visa–my first passport picture was deemed too “inappropriate.” (I had apparently exposed too much chest?) I’m glad they decided to let me in. What a week.