African Window Shopping

12322536_10102163250390672_4913808849918494200_oFor as long as I’ve heard of Luanda I’ve known that the town is pricey. It has religiously been on the top ten list of the most expensive cities in the world and when I happen to spot Angolans in Brasil, South Africa or Mozambique they stick out like a very sore, expensive thumb. They tend to be flashy and fashion conscious elsewhere, but how can that be when they warn that Luanda’s shop prices are appalling?

If you don’t know much about Africa or southern Africa or Angola, you should get acquainted. The country sits on the southwest coast of Africa, just south of both Congos and north of Namibia *Windhoek.* It was once colonized by the Portuguese and Luanda was the epicenter of economic life. Colonization took a strong hold here and, for me, its remnants are more visible here than in other ex-Portuguese colonies. The Portuguese fought hard to keep Angola within the crown because there were so many expats living there and so much money made from exports and natural resources. Independence came in 1975 after a multifaceted resistance movement that started as early as 1956. After independence, a civil war broke out between nascent political parties and it lasted until 2002. Over half a million people lost their lives and about 1 million were said to be displaced (both internally and internationally). The country shares porous borders and cultural ties with its neighbors, with many people having relatives that live in both Congos & speak French or in Namibia & speak English. Tribulations in bordering countries have reverberations in Angola.

How did the capitol get so expensive? Angola is an oil rich state. Much of the nation’s conflicts and economy revolve around an oil rich region named Cabinda. It is disputed territory, but the Angolans have held fast to their claim. Oil is the backbone of Angola’s economy and, with its protectionist policies & hefty bureaucracy, much of the nation’s wealth has remained in country.  The colonial legacies of Namibia (forcibly annexed to South Africa) have resulted in either family ties or none at all to its neighbors to the south, so they’re not dumping their cash into the @home store in Cape Town as much as I had suspected. Angolans tend to keep within the Portuguese speaking world and often head to Lisbon for all things they idealize.

Oddly enough, Portuguese neo-colonialism has resulted in the demand for Portuguese imports and the oil market has powered the ability of many people in Luanda to willingly pay the high costs of transportation, fees, taxes and mark ups involved in getting goods from Europe.

Anywho, Luanda is notorious for being a shopping nightmare. I was told to bring my food with me and only plan to purchase perishables in town. I was warned to be prepared and to pack well, because I’d be giving up a limb and a progeny to replace basic clothing items forgotten in my haste.

I’m happy to report that it’s not so bad to shop in Luanda, but there are a few catches. First, there is a lot of poverty. I don’t want to paint the picture that this town looks like the Abu Dhabi of Africa. There are many people who struggle for the basics and I would be remiss to omit them. Second, the exchange rate, foreign currency exchange, and oil prices have all fluctuated ridiculously over this past year. It has resulted in the USD to Kwanza exchange being officially 135 Kwanza to 1 USD, but the street rate can go as high as double that.  Based on exchange alone, prices have dropped about 50% for those paid in dollars. Third, Luanda is full of stores. I mean FULL. There are boutiques everywhere. There are new malls popping up. There is an abundance and variety of options, if you’re actually looking and think you can afford it. So, I went on the prowl.

I shopped craft fairs:

I shopped designer boutiques:

I shopped mid range shops:

 

And I reached out to independent designers:

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We all know this is not the end of my exploratory shopping project, but the initial visit was indeed promising. Artisan crafts are much higher priced than what can be found in neighboring countries, but since Luanda believes itself to be very Afro-Europolitan  there are actually few craft shops to choose from anyway. I’d say hitch a layover to Johannesburg airport and shop duty free instead. There’s more variety and quality there than in Luanda.

The clothing boutiques vary. I absolutely fell in love with a dress priced at 36,000 Kwanza or about $265 USD. While the dress was cute and it actually fit, it was made in China by a brand called Hesperus. Google it and see if you find a single thing on this brand that doesn’t entail a creepy wholesale website that asks you for your SSN before you check out.  #supersideeye

 

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The price was too high for my blood, so it stayed in the store as a result. But, it haunts me!

Last, the high end stores range from exactly the same outrageous US price to slightly less. My personal fave was the Dolce & Gabbana collection at Boutique Anisabel, though I couldn’t afford even a belt on the discount rack.

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The Du Carmo store turned out to be a big hit and just affordable enough to make my heart skip a beat. I almost considered getting my niece a couture frock and my husband some Orlebar Brown polos until I remembered that neither one of them is currently in Luanda and I’m extremely selfish. Back to the ladies’ section:

All in all, the shopping expedition was interesting and insightful. From brand names to Chinese no names, it is true that Angolan stores have interesting European styles and, in a pinch, a lovely young lady could theoretically hop to an unknown shop and pick up a much needed outfit or accessory for a special occasion. The prices certainly aren’t cheap, but they are accessible for a splurge. This visit has certainly debunked the myth that it’s impossible to shop in Luanda.

It is certainly possible, but it should be done with caution!

Resident Outsider

I would not consider myself a Delhi expert. There are people who have lived their whole lives here who would not dare say with a straight face that they ‘know’ Delhi. It is cities upon cities, villages reinvented as towns, farmers come urbanites all compounded on top of themselves. Suffice it to say that Delhi is dense. And quite frankly, it is a category of dense I’ve never experienced in any of my previous travels.

So, it is particularly interesting when I get to host other travelers, and I get to play tour guide to the foreign stars. They want the Taj Mahal and tikka, they must see Lodhi Gardens and Lutyens; and while I do my darnedest to make it happen, what I don’t always have the time to do is give them the gems of my day to day. Perhaps not the most glamorous or adventurous sights and sounds, these are the places I find myself feeling particularly guilty that I didn’t tell them all about. Now, my favorite places aren’t secrets by any means. Locals and expats have discovered them and frequent some with vigor – but they don’t appear in too many guide books that pride themselves on over glamorizing the Indian experience. As a tip, never trust a book that presents Old Delhi as magical (instead of a bustling haven for pickpockets and claustrophobia) and Qawwali as a calming religious experience (instead of a hot, outdoor graveyard packed to the brim with Delhi’s prayerful and pauper population).

I suffer from the great gentrifier’s conundrum – trying to strike the balance between sharing info about what’s new to me, without building a buzz large enough to draw the types of crowds that will destroy all the splendor. Suspending all that, with great reluctance and great enthusiasm, I’ll give you the top 10 Delhi sites that I wish each of my guests got to see (but never told any other tourist about):

1 – The Rose Cafe in Saket – As you approach the Garden of Five Senses, there is a one floor building, painted rose pink on the right side of the road. It’s a very pregnant pink. It makes you think there’s got to be something sweet inside. Oh, how the Rose Cafe doesn’t disappoint with tasty beverages & bites, served amidst pleasant, French country-house style decor. What a sweet respite from the dirt road outside.

2 – The ruins at Hauz Khas Village – I always thought that at the end of the road, there wasn’t much beyond the gates after Yeti. Alas, I couldn’t have been more wrong(er). There are so many little inlets and passageways in the ruins that border the lake. No one can seem to place the complex in a clear historical timeline, but perhaps it was a madrassa campus. Regardless, it’s a cool place to pass the day, except when the weather is hot – of course.

3 – My yard – It ain’t much to look at by normal standards, but in my neighborhood yards are not normal. My little patch of green, furnished with an apricot tree, potted roses, mint vines, and bougainvillea all around, is a sight for sore eyes. The tandori pit doesn’t hurt either.

4 – The pub at the British High Commission – Diplomats comprise a popular percentage of the expats in this city. So, naturally, Embassies hold a particular allure. The Brits’ pub isn’t special as far as pubs go, but Delhi’s bars aren’t known for cigar chairs and Strongbow. Maybe the pub’s endangered status is intentional, but I’m happy that one still lives on.

5 – The reservoir in Nizammudin – Step well, reservoir, swimming pool, same thing. Built by Hazrat Nizammudin 700 years ago, the structure houses a spring that is enclosed on all sides by sacred spaces and residential homes. While the enclave’s residents can now, more than ever before, drink the water (though I still wouldn’t) – they also take baths and make pilgrimages in it too. Through the geometric cut outs in the walls, I prefer to observe boys doing backflips off the steps into the brownish, greenish pool below.

6 – ‘The cave’ in Sarojini Nagar Market – Unlike Khan market or South Ex, Sarojini market is pretty pedestrian. Mixed in between the shoe string lady on the opposite side of the street from the mobile phone recharge booth and the mid-range sari shops is a little inlet known as ‘the cave.’ I’m not even sure that it is a structure, per se, but a clump of clothing vendors who have laid down and pinned up tarps to make a mini market to hawk their goods. Dresses for 400 rupees, shirts for 2? It’s an experience…

7 – Museums in Gurgaon: This one is a cheat. I know Gurgaon isn’t part of Delhi, but once you get here you’ll realize just how much it actually is. There is more to Gurgaon than high rises and multinationals – and no, I don’t mean malls all named DLF.  There are lots of museums and art galleries out there just waiting to be explored. Where else to house these collections except in converted farm land or on sprawling farm house properties? Have your pick: Sanskriti Kendra Museum, Museum of Folk and Tribal Art, The Devi Art Foundation… and more.

8 – Normal people’s houses – It is hard to understand what ‘normal’ really means here in Delhi. But, visiting different people’s houses gives you a sense of the complexities of the term. Whether it’s a one bedroom flat it Mayur Vihar or a 5 house complex in Saket, you will only get to know Delhi-ites by being welcomed into their homes – where they spend time with the people they love.

9 – Lado Sarai – What a quirky little ‘hood this one is. I hope it’s the under-discovered, under-popularized Hauz Khas Village that people don’t ever go to – except maybe you and me. With its high end and niche brands in the Crescent Mall, and it’s design houses and odd shops, I’m cornering this part of town as my new playground.

10 – The India International Centre – I’m often rendered awe-struck by the kinds of programming this place has. Who knew it had an annex? Whether it’s book launches or movies, educational talks or cultural displays, I find myself going to the IIC about once a month to unhinge my inner academic and learn even more about India’s charm.

My Thai

Let me begin with an apology for the delayed posting. I had some fits and starts with the internet in my guest house in Chiang Mai. And I was also having a lot of fun with friends old and new, so it wasn’t convenient to interrupt the fun to find a reliable connection, sit down and write a blog post about all the fun I was having. Ya dig?

This Thailand trip really reminded me why I started this blog in the first place. If you haven’t read the ‘About’ section above, then you may lose track of my point. I don’t write to flaunt my frequent flyer miles or to expose some underlying truth about contemporary affairs.  I’m not merely writing so my friends and family can hear more about my travails from afar. I write about what I love and what I know. Both of which are deeply connected to always being in a state of ‘in between,’ always in transit between two destinations that, in and of themselves, have power and appeal.  This place of filler between sites is the battery in my back. The going, moving, on the way to… is the place I’ve always felt most comfortable and whole.

I dig driving 90 mph on the Jersey Turnpike heading north from exit 2. Why? Because I crave the process of being a passerby, not of any particular obligation, viewing the world pass me by at a pace I willingly submit to and only intersecting with the view outside my window for the split second we have together. It’s the same reason why I always ask for a window seat. Who wants to be in the nose-bleeds at the playoffs?

Hence why, as I peer outside of the seat 35K, over the right wing of the plane, into the darkness of a night somewhere between Bangkok and Delhi, I’m reminded that this quirky experience that most people dread or fear is actually the water that keeps my blood flowing. It’s what kept Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the driver’s seat even after logic would tell him that his seatbelt could break too. It’s not adrenaline. It’s not a rush. It’s an essential element. It’s what made Lauryn Hill create Miseducation… out of a circumstance of needing to prove to herself that she, herself, was capable. It’s what would then lead her to perform Unplugged to prove to the public that she, herself, had nothing more to prove.

I can’t quite give a face to what it feels like to be one of a herd of people passing through customs, and knowing that that individual stamp in my individual passport is the only souvenir I will ever need to prove to myself, or anyone else, that I know myself.  I imagine it’s like what a parent feels like sending off their first born to her first day of school. It’s pride from afar; a silent protectiveness rears up from the underbelly. You think, “This is unnerving, but this is what it’s all about.”

I take my passport envy seriously and it’s the only kind of jealousy that I openly retain. Since I heard Chuck D bring up the term almost a decade ago, I never once forgot its resonance.  And it’s been almost ten years since I’ve really spent any time with the high school friend I hung out with in Chiang Mai. Call it a blast from the past or just a reminder of what’s always been right in my life – but I felt all weekend that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. Eating. Laughing, Listening. Learning. And being – without a map or an agenda, just an internal compass that said ‘soak this shit up!’

I spent the first night in Thailand alone in a bed and breakfast in the old part of Bangkok.  This was the only thing that was actually planned about the trip – staying at Focal Local.  I have ulterior business motives for stopping through guesthouses and such, and I have no problem learning from the best by walking a mile in their guesthouse shoes.  Needless to say, as much as this place gave me exactly what I needed to fuel my business energies, it wasn’t in the center of town, turned out to be more expensive than I’d expected and thus left a bit to be desired for the girl who decided she wouldn’t read a single guidebook before boarding a Thai Airways flight on Indian Republic Day.

When I arrived, the sun had already set and guilt and sleep deprivation from a work project the day before left me exhausted and craving the warm innards of a cozy bed.  I got to the guesthouse and it was tucked away in a nook of a residential part of town.  I only saw two other foreigners near this neighborhood and both were buying Singha beers for a nightcap in their room at Focal Local.

I took the advice of a Delhite friend and headed to Mango Tree for a Thai dinner. She seemed so convinced it was the best restaurant ever. But while hanging out at an India Art Fair event on the night before my departure we bumped into my new Indian eye candy and his friend, who blurted out something along the lines that her recommendation to go to Mango Tree would be the first line in the unwritten book “Thailand for dumbass tourists: Visit 101 over priced tourist traps.”  (I secretly wished that I could meld Sahab Eye Candy and Sahab Smart Mouth into one person.)

Needless to say, I went to Mango Tree. It was late. I didn’t want to stay out all night and everybody who knows me knows that I love Thai food like a fat kid loves tater tots. Sahab Smart Mouth was on point. The food was good, though not great. But since the entire restaurant was full of tourists, it was a nice little transition into being in between actually staying in this all Thai neighborhood (I don’t speak Thai) and being a traveler on my first real trip to Asia (India and Pakistan don’t count).

I spent the next day putting out some work fires, chatting on Skype, and walking around the 20 block radius of my B&B.  Minus the work part, I couldn’t think of a better way to start the vacay.

At about 5pm on Friday, I flew to Chiang Mai and I was ready to be social. My friend and 2 of her friends met me at Thae Pae Gate.  She looked exactly how she looked when I last saw her. She had the glow of a woman who enjoys smiling. Turns out I’d met one of her friends before, and so on we went to Burmese food right near the gate. I selfishly devoured dishes that were supposed to be shared. I did some Delhi bashing and some Thailand hailing, and then we were off to browse the town before heading to slumber. There were bars full of expats and tourists and lady boys and comfort women and reggaeton and pop music you’d hear on Z100 FM. I went to bed satisfied.

The next day was Saturday and it felt like we should really be getting into some shizznit. And so we did. We went for a breakfast that was really a lunch at a cozy little place that actually underwhelmed on the food front. But the service was good and I had my first juice since I got to this continent. My insides screamed Mazel Tov! (My juicer is about to get the business after I get off this plane.) We bought tickets for the next day’s Jungle Flight – 22 ziplines, 1 spiral stair case, 3 free falls and 2 maybe 3 suspension bridges in a canopy in the mountains – and got Thai massages, which are a lot more active than I was expecting.  And at some point we split up for a few hours. I went to my guest house for what was supposed to be twenty minutes, but became two hours.  I think we did yoga at Namo when I went back, but I can’t remember which day that was.

I do know that we met up later that night with a few new members and were off to dance. Long story short, we ended up in the Nimmanhaemin section of town – near Chiang Mai University and I’m pretty sure that the next time I stay in Chiang Mai this is where I’m heading. There were short skirts and spikey gelled hair everywhere, cute coffee shops and boutiques peppered with young, educated Thai artsy folk. Not quite Soho, think more West Village; not quite H Street, think more the stretch of 14th street between U St and Logan Circle. Not exactly Newbury Street, think more Back Bay.

So we went to Infinity, which is a proper club (not a bar), with girls showing too much skin and tugging at the elbows of guys who were so damn lucky to be born in Thailand that they should suck on the Buddha’s big toe (because otherwise these gorgeous girls would have been, should have been, probably still are out of their league). We were the only tourists there. We means me, my Trini- Boston 5 foot 7 friend, her Chicagoan come English teacher in Lamphun friend and the Chicagoan’s 6 foot 5 British scientist researcher friend. We were a sight, if ever there was one. And we were really loving it up until this sad ass, droning ass, Thai heartbreak music band started playing. It was cool at first when they turned off Jay-Z and Alicia Keys and this 5 dude boy band hit the stage. “Hey, there’s a live band,” I screamed upward towards the direction of the Brit’s far off ear canal. His face read dry British wit, “This poor girl doesn’t know what’s good for her.”  So, after about 40 minutes, the equivalent of 4 songs with 3 breakdowns each, we headed back to the center of town for bed.

The next day we actually did something active, and un-city like. After almost vomiting on myself from extreme car sickness resulting from the driver sending the back-end of the car into a series of tailspins because speeding through the narrow curves heading uphill into the mountain seemed like his idea of fun, I fully understood that I was stuck.  There was no going back,  and no going forward except to strap on a harness, check my carabiners more than once, and jump through the trees.  Oh those lush green trees. I haven’t seen that kind of wet, full, hydrated green since I moved to Delhi – so the canopy was a highlight. After heading back to town 4 hours later, I went off alone for 2 massages and a walk before meeting up with my good company once more for some shopping at the night market. If you asked me where I bought your souvenirs, have no doubt – I bought them off the street, right near the moat, probably just above an open sewer, and in the throws of crowds so thick they could’ve been churned into spicy thai chili butter.

The next day was a day for my friend and I to catch up alone. It was the first stretch of time we had alone since I’d gotten there and it was awkwardly familiar.  Remember how Troy felt when she got down south, saw her high yeller cousin for the first time and chased behind her parent’s car as they drove away? I wasn’t exactly running at full speed, but I was looking around thinking – without all the filler around us, what exactly is the bond?  We rented a scooter and headed out to a lake, and chatted about life and love and this beautiful lake and it felt like we’d grown older but not apart. We kept saying to each other, “I can’t believe we’re in Asia!” We giggled like two schoolgirls after seeing Queenie spring stiffly from the pull out couch.  We ate, we shopped, we phoned home to give shared bday biggups to our friend Tanya Everett.  She fell asleep with her phone in her hand, ended up sleeping side ways in the bed ‘til I woke her for a readjustment. I gave up on packing, finished reading Toure’s “Never Drank the Kool Aid” and started Suze Orman’s “Women & Money.”

I woke up  around 5am to hand her the blaring phone. Then I woke up again when I gave her the last bad breath, sleep induced hug I would give her.  She went off to her village to teach English to Thai kids, and I went back to bed before returning the scooter to the rental place, paying the 30Baht for the loofah I’d bought in the guesthouse, getting a facial scrub, eating one more time at Aum and heading out to the airport. And with that, I said ‘so long’ to Chiang Mai.

Rarely am I ever shocked by anything that happens on an airplane. Turbulence raises no fear, just a well-deserved rush. I say a short prayer to the God of small things, and give nuff respekk to ancestors and deities of varying origins, and I try to fall asleep before the plane even takes off.  On my flight from Bangkok though, I stayed up for some reason and when I realized that they really didn’t bother to even go into the safety procedures in any detail, my attention shifted ahead to the big screen at the front of the economy section. What could it be that would catch the eye of this buxom brown-skinned thang, but the view from a night vision camera on the nose of the plane? What a wonderful world! This isn’t the peripheral vision of a window seat, blocked by the plane’s bulging body. This was the clear shot from the nose to the sky, with nothing but grey renderings of the white spots dotting the night. Every bit of the present, on the ground in the sky, in the trees or on the tarmac has something to offer. If that ain’t a reminder of the process of getting from one great experience to the next, then you, my darling, simply haven’t lived in my in between.