Journey to Africa (cont.)
5:30 a.m. Friday, Luanda: Arrival at 4 de Fevereiro airport! It's newly renovated and immaculate. Now if only Angolans could get out of the habit of naming their buildings after important dates. The shiny new soccer stadium here in the Angolan capital is called 11 de Novembro stadium. Either get a cool name or go for the sponsorship dollars, guys. It has to be one or the other!
6:30 a.m. Friday, Luanda: The Angolan capital has never had what might be called traditional Western-style taxis -- until the African Nations Cup. The gleaming white "Afri-Taxis" are brand new, and I hop in one for the 10-minute ride to the domestic terminal. It becomes a 20-minute ride when yet another cabbie gets lost on the way.
7 a.m. Friday, Luanda: Despair. All of the companies that offer flights to Cabinda say they are full or canceled for the day. There was no way for me to make an advance reservation from America. I have to get to Cabinda in time for the 7:30 p.m. game tonight. I run from one shop window to the other pleading my case in broken Portuguese. The shirt I have been wearing for two days is soaked with sweat in the 85-degree heat. Still no luck on the ticket.
I notice a curious phenomenon. Amid the throng of people outside the terminal, I'm approached by several local "ticket guys," who say they'll get me on the full flights and ask for my passport. (No thanks.) A female traveler finally explains: the "ticket guys" have connections inside the flight companies and (for an extra fee) can get you tickets when they're supposedly sold out. (Nice system there.) All you have to do is give them a copy of your passport (not the real thing) and let them go to work.
So I do that. Not even three different ticket guys can get me on a bird to Cabinda. I am a big, fat failure.
8 a.m. Friday, Luanda: And then -- a miracle. I'm approached by a friendly Angolan guy named Januário P.S. Cuela. "Call me J," he says. He's an engineer in his late 20s who has just dropped off his nephew for a flight. He speaks great English. He takes pity on me. For an hour J. hassles the sales staff of something called Diexem Express airlines. He has never met me before. We wait. I give him a copy of Sports Illustrated with Kentucky's John Wall on the cover. He asks me to sign it, acts like I'm doing him a favor. Unbelievable.
9 a.m. Friday, Luanda: Success! Not everyone has shown up for the flight. I'm taken off the Angolan version of stand-by, purchase my ticket and am allowed into the air-conditioned waiting room, but not before I offer J. a sizable tip (he won't take anything) and we exchange numbers. May good karma be with you forever, J. Cuela.
9:30 a.m. Friday, Luanda: Hey, my iPhone works here! Wonder how much I'm paying for roaming?
10 a.m. Friday, Luanda: My flight to Cabinda is canceled. Mechanical failure. I'm put on the next flight at 12:30 p.m..
1 p.m. Friday, Luanda: We board our plane!
2:30 p.m. Friday, Luanda: More delays. We're bused back to the terminal. Apparently the Cabinda airport runway doesn't have room for our prop-job because so many private planes have landed there for the Ghana-Ivory Coast game. The "Express" in Diexem Express is deemed a relative term.
3 p.m. Friday, Luanda: England's own Wilson is with me now. He's trying to go to Cabinda too, but informs me that with sunset at 5:30 p.m. (and requirements that planes land in daylight) we only have an hour before we'll have to scrap the trip for the day altogether. Depression sets in.
3:45 p.m., Friday, Luanda: Can it be? Yes! We're on the plane. We're taking off!
4:45 p.m., Friday, Cabinda: It's beautiful as we approach our landing: pristine sandy beaches, emerald-green fields, and ... lots of offshore oil rigs. I'm met by my driver, Pedro, and fixer, Cristóvão Luemba, a correspondent of the Angolan Catholic Church Radio Station Radio Ecclésia. Cristóvão is The Man. I think he might know everyone in Cabinda. The public affairs office of the U.S. Embassy in Luanda hooked me up with them -- many thanks to the Embassy guys.
5:30 p.m. Friday, Cabinda: Cristóvão comes with me to pick up my credential at the local basketball gym. (Remember, Angola is traditionally the best basketball country in Africa, despite what you might recall from the first game of the Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics.) Duly credentialed, I'm legit and can get into the stadium.
7 p.m. Friday, Cabinda: After checking into my hotel in the Cabinda town square -- an attractive store-fronted area with a sort of tropical-style light spectacular -- we drive 30 minutes through heavy traffic to the gorgeous new 35,000-seat stadium, a Chinese-built jewel that reminds me of stadiums used at the 2008 Olympics. There are plenty of gun-toting security officers along the way -- no one wants any more violent incidents, despite promises of more from FLEC -- but not so many that the fans can't have fun in the stands.
7:30 p.m. Friday, Cabinda: Kickoff! I'm seated in the press area in the third row of the stadium at midfield. No matter how many times you see these guys play on television, it's jarring to be this close to the speed and power of players like Ivory Coast's Drogba, Yayá Touré and Salomon Kalou or Ghana's Essien (a surprise non-starter) and Asamoah Gyan. ACN crowds are relentlessly festive, with brass- and horn-bands supporting both sides, and the style of play tends to be fast-and free-wheeling too. It's a heck of a lot of fun.
9:30 p.m. Friday, Cabinda: Drogba's late goal allows Ivory Coast to finish off a 3-1 victory in which it dominated, even after going down a man (to Emanuel Eboué's second-half red card). Ivory Coast qualifies for the second round with a victory, and afterward I'll talk to Drogba (in English) and Touré (in Spanish; he plays for Barcelona) in the mixed zone.
11:40 p.m. Friday, Cabinda: A phone interview on CNN International World Sport complete, I slump into a chair in the lobby of my hotel. I'm hungry as hell, and the only restaurant open on my street can offer a bottle of Portuguese SuperBock beer and a piece of chocolate cake. It's the best combination ever. For all the effort it takes to travel to the most remote Big Game in the world, every single minute is worth it.
Back with more reports in the coming days...
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