It is a photograph I never took; of a man of my age gazing warily down one of the many dusty seen-better-days streets in the half-light before dawn. Gaps in the stucco of its low buildings reflect in the rainy season puddles of Angola’s ancient city of Benguela, just shy of the newly rebuilt and as yet inactive railway. The coloured flags of the Chinese construction company still flutter in the Atlantic breeze over the fenced off station building.
In parts a broken jumble of stones, the road is almost free of the traffic it endures during daylight hours. Later vehicles and pedestrians will fight through the sloshing water, but now, the pre-dawn chill places a blanket of calm over the centre of the historic heart of the city.
In contrast, the ground that acts as a bus station is a cacophony of igniting engines and waking groans. Roused from sleep, huddled on the floor of the ticket office on reed matting and under dirty worn blankets, travellers stretch themselves awake as a queue forms for the first bus of the day. It’s 4 am.
Angola is massive; its infrastructure severely weakened by 30 years – my lifetime – of a civil war that sporadically ran until 2002. More than a decade on, journeys anywhere seem to take a lifetime. Private cars are all but unknown, and stick to running the richest businessmen on town errands.
Taking a deep breath I join the queue, and use my only words of Portuguese to fork out for a ticket onward along Angola’s desperately long Atlantic coast, preparing myself physically and mentally for the rough twelve hour journey in an aging coach packed equally tightly with people and their possessions.
Frequently regarded as the most expensive place on earth, I couldn’t even really afford a small plastic bag’s worth of chips from the wax-cloth wrapped women who hoisted their goods high above their heads to reach the gritty, rattling bus windows. I couldn’t understand how the people around me could afford to live in a country where the cheapest meal I could find was a $20 burger. Already exhausted, I gaze warily down that Angolan street, my camera firmly in my pocket.