Third World footnotes

April 19, 2005|By G. Jefferson Price III

A WEEK AGO today I returned from a six-week visit to Angola, Madagascar and India. After 13 flights, three overnight trains, two boats and what seemed like a thousand miles on rutted, flooded roadways, the conclusion is that getting there decidedly is not part of the fun.

In Angola, the first leg of this Third World odyssey was spent on roadways that have not been much improved since the end of the civil war that gripped that country for nearly 30 years. Why a country that takes in more than $5 billion a year in oil and diamond revenues cannot fix its roads is a baffling question.

One of my escorts suggested that if the roads were better, people might be able to get to the capital, Luanda, and protest against a government that is not sharing the national wealth.

The Luanda headquarters of Chevron-Texaco, one of the big companies drilling for oil off Angola's coast, is at the intersection of Lenin Avenue and Allende Street, a sure sign that capitalism has triumphed over socialism. The building overlooks a hill of garbage where the poorest in the capital rummage to find anything useful to their survival. So much for the revolution.

Work is still under way to get rid of the land mines prolifically scattered around the country during the war. Vehicles that look like huge spiders from an old grade-B horror film move sluggishly along the roads searching for mines. The first time I saw one of these was on a road near Cubal in Central Angola. It was moving so slowly that we passed it.

"What was that?" I asked.

"A mine clearer," came the answer.

"We just passed the mine clearer?" I shrieked.

The day I was returning from Banguela to Luanda, my driver decided to entertain me with a tape cassette of rap music. The speakers blared out the most obscene lyrics imaginable while Manuel, the driver, tapped on the steering wheel in sync with the rhythm as we bounced along the coastal road from Lobito to Banguela.

Inasmuch as Manuel was employed by Catholic Relief Services, the organization that was paying for my trip, I wondered if he had the vaguest idea what the lyrics meant. What if he were to play the tape while some prelate visiting from America was the passenger - Cardinal William H. Keeler, say?

In the CRS office in Luanda, I was assured that Manuel had no idea what the lyrics meant. In fact, I was told, the Catholic radio station, hoping to attract the younger generation, plays the same kind of music without knowing what the words mean.

The roads in India are in far better condition, paved even in much of the interior - but the traffic is horrendous!

The stories about scores of Indians regularly perishing in bus crashes are true. Driving along one road in Central India, we passed three buses crashed into trees, all appearing to have swerved off the road to avoid oncoming traffic. If the roads are too narrow to accommodate traffic in both directions, one wonders, why don't they plant the trees farther from the roadside?

But travel in the heavily populated cities of India is the most nightmarish. I would compare this to being in the center of a ghoulish computer game in which creatures keep popping up in your way to be dodged lest they eliminate you.

In India, the things are other vehicles - other cars, big trucks, carts drawn by people or animals, and bicycles by the tens of thousands. The creatures are people crossing the roads, dogs wandering aimlessly into traffic, goats, chickens and finally cows, the big, sacred cows that lope imperiously into the most congested traffic knowing nothing will dare to strike them.

One day in Chennai, the city once known as Madras, I dared to go on a sight-seeing and shopping expedition in a motor scooter rickshaw. Exposed more than one would feel in a car, this was one of the most hair-raising experiences of all.

Incidentally, there are no Madras shirts in Madras. So far as I could tell, I had the only one. But there is Bombay gin, which is indispensable to any traveler in these parts. Lots of it.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and editor of The Sun.

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