Hotel Terminus:
A Farce Without an Ending

By Richard J. Houk

The Journal of African Travel-Writing, Number 1, September 1996 (pp. 42-51)

1996 The Journal of African Travel-Writing

In 1957, when I was in Portuguese Africa on a Ford Foundation research grant, I used to make copies of my weekly or bi-monthly messages sent to members of my family in different parts of the USA. One of these messages, dated March 22, 1957, I titled "The Hotel Terminus." Portions of the thirty-one-page document are presented here. I was especially fortunate to have the support of the Portuguese Government, which had helped so much with my previous study of the republic's maritime fishing industry. Inasmuch as the research for my doctoral dissertation forced me to learn to speak, read, and even write in Portuguese, my ability to communicate with the various individuals mentioned in the letter certainly made the encounters enjoyable and informative.

Setting

The Hotel Terminus--a red-painted wood and adobe building of perhaps thirty years' vintage that has been constructed by the Benguela Railway to house travellers brought down from the Belgian Congo and the Angolan plateau to the long, sandy peninsula on which Portugal has constructed the principal port of Angola. All but four of its twenty-five rooms front onto the ocean. Those on the second floor have nice balconies in front where one can breakfast, doze, and gaze in rapture at the waves which break up with a loud roar every eight seconds. The beds are comfortable and are swathed in mosquito netting nightly to keep the customers comfortable. Downstairs is the lobby, two conversation rooms, the dining room and its adjunct which opens right onto the ocean--and the bar.

Cast of Characters

Esther--a Jewess from Tangier with hair dyed blonde who serves as the receptionist during the day and reads murder mysteries all night.

Sr Peres--the desk clerk, whose favorite expression, mumbled from the depths of his long and sparse frame, is "When are you leaving?" This cheery greeting is due to the fact that the Hotel is small and the number of potential customers is always greater than the space.

Fernando--the head waiter, a chunky young Portuguese, whom I'd known back at the Hotel Miraparque in Lisbon. He has been very solicitous and surely has seen to it that I have eaten well. The criticism here is not about the quality of food but about the service, which is awful. The African waiters are not speed demons.

Antonio Rebelo Pinto--administrator of the Lobito area. A nervous but youngish official, he seems to have developed quite a liking for Lobito during his three years here. He is crazy about hunting and fishing and is a loud protagonist of the theory that people in tropical cities such as these should exercise more in order to maintain their health. (Actually I am rather surprised at the amount of exercise youngsters take: hockey on skates, the local soccer, tennis, basketball, etc.; in addition to the aquatic sports. The adults, on the other hand, seem to be as badly addicted to using automobiles for any errand of over a block as we are; of course there are servants to do all the physical work.) When the N.L. train arrived here, the Administrator was up in Silva Porto to celebrate the departure of the Governor; consequently the Secretary of the local administration and the Mayor came to greet me and escort me to the Terminus where they'd arranged for rooms. Later, I met the Administrator one warm morning when he helped me pay official calls (reported in the local papers, mind you!) to the City Hall and the local equivalent of the Chamber of Commerce. In the case of the former, the offices are in a building still under construction. It is just a concrete shell, but people are hiding out in the various rooms set up there and somehow the city of Lobito is getting governed. They have models of the "city of the future" and it does look as if that city will be well set up. I went all the way up to the top floor--wasn't sure if I'd ever come down again via the stairs, but then my insurance is paid up and it would've made great headlines internationally. I got to make these trips dressed in sport shirt and slacks "because you are a foreign guest "--thank Heaven for sparing me the horror of moving about enveloped in shirt and tie and coat! (I wore them once--when I called on the Governor and at least two lbs. trickled off of me during the hour!) The visit to the local Chamber of Commerce was brief and pleasant; their building is actually a magnificent thing and contains some fine meeting rooms, libraries, etc. They hold dances there twice yearly and have a bar, which they regretfully announced as being closed until 5 p.m. (I was there at noon.) The excellence of the edifice was in strong contrast to the miserable condition of the City Hall.

Emilio Cochat--the secretary to the Governor of Benguela. Of French extraction, he has one brother who is the French Consul in Elisabethville and others scattered all over the Old World. He is portly and possessed of a great section of bald spot which his official helmet (those tropical helmets you see in the movies are worn here--but only by officials, children, nuns, and African traffic cops) protects but does not replace. He met me when the train stopped at Benguela on my way down from Nova Lisboa and has been with me ever since. He is really a very pleasant person and we get along very well; he has set up the program of visits and has really kept me quite busy during the past week. He knows everyone but says that most of them hate him--and for the simple reason that he has to serve as the filter for all of the people who want to talk with the Governor. People come with marital difficulties, etc., and want to talk them over with the Governor! Emilio usually has to dispatch them to the padre or doctor since the Governor has sufficient headaches from the politicians. Luckily for me, he has agreed to nearly every request concerning my stay here. They say that you can tell a great deal about a person by finding out about his ancestors. In the case of Emilio, I think that if he has inherited their characteristics he is keeping it a secret. One uncle who as Administrator of Nova Redondo had much power in that port used to pull a trick that sounds something like you, Dad: he'd take the picture of some new official visitor who was to disembark there and have it affixed to a "Wanted: Criminal"-type poster such as we have in the Post Offices. It looked completely authentic and the poor newcomer was greeted by being thrown into jail for days; then the uncle would hint that a little money might help to solve the problem and the poor newcomer would have to pay to get out of a jail that he never should have been in in the first place!

Emilio's father was also a "card." One stunt was to cut down the British flag the night before the national holiday was to be celebrated at the British Consulate in Luanda and to put up a "chamber pot" painted in the colors of the Commonwealth in its place. (Portugal and Britain have been allied longer than any other two countries but it sounds as though the "charm" of the alliance has worn off!)

Another famous stunt concerned a boasting sergeant of the Portuguese Army who was transferred to Novo Redondo. A great hunter, he was tricked into going leopard hunting near the cemetery one night. His friends took the shot from his shells before he left and one of them, dressed in a skin, jumped down from a tombstone and fell on him. Since the shots seemed to have no effect and since the leopard apparently was going to claw him to death, the braggart fainted. When he came to, the "pals" had him all bandaged and kept him in bed for a week while they apparently gave him medicinal treatment, etc. Only then did he discover the truth about the fraud; his life from then on was unbearable since everyone in the city kept hooting "Leopard" at him and finally he had to be transferred to a distant post! Those early days in Angola must have been really hilarious!

Governor Jose Maria de Lima e Lemos--sixty-two years young and just starting his third term as Governor of the District of Benguela. He is a nice grandfatherly type and is fondly considered by most local residents. He had to go up to Luanda this week, but next Tuesday I am going with him on an official tour of some of the interior of his area; it will be a memorable three to four days since I never have gone out travelling with a governor before and probably never will again! The Governor has given strict orders that I'm to be considered as the guest of the Government, which means that all my transportation and living costs are to be taken care of by the Government. This I did not expect! Anyhow the meeting I had with the Governor was in his temporary office. (They are building a new Governor's residence and office, but it won't be ready for two years--just like everything else in Angola!)

The Governor's wife, Dona Raquel, throws canasta parties monthly to pick up cash for supporting a whole batch of local charities which she sponsors. From tea to whisky: you make your choice and help the unfortunate while your drink slips down your gullet! What an novel excuse!

Camille Mirepoix--a somewhat astounding American authoress who was the last official guest of the Government in these parts (they are just now getting around to accepting me as being "reasonably sane" after having to put up with Camille). She greeted the Governor of Benguela by rushing into his office, kissing him on both cheeks, and shouting, "Darling, I feel as though I've known you for years!" Camille also endeared herself to Sr Cochat and his wife by bursting into their home one evening during her stay and sultrily whimpering to Emilio, "You can spend at least every night for the next thirty years with your wife--can't you give me just this one evening?" (Emilio gave her a good boot!)

The "Graf"--a tall German Count with a fair complexion and a moustache who finally got to set up his life in Angola after spending years in a concentration camp in the Belgian Congo. There are many Germans in Angola and they usually are much appreciated by the Portuguese because of the high quality of their work and the success with which they tackle anything from banana growing to business. They still keep up the custom of public kissing of women's hands on greeting, especially if the man is a member of the former nobility.

Mr Tillekamp--a Dutchman of twenty-nine who has had a rough and full life. By seventeen, he was in the Army. Later he wanted to start a career out in Indonesia, but the anti-Dutch resentment there was so great that no Dutchman who'd served in his country's military forces could migrate there. Another problem of this curly-haired young man is that he is supposed to be quite in love with a young German governess, but she isn't quite "worldly" enough for him despite her blonde beauty. It appears that she has gone back to Germany for a couple of years to "wise up" and doubtless could return much, much less naive!

Mrs Bonnie Zahl--wife of a well-driller from Santa Monica here under one of the last programs set up by the Aid to Europe. She is in her sixties and is rather the gentle, quiet, and modest type; as a result, she hasn't had much to do with the rather raucous English set in Lobito. Currently she is packing and planning the itinerary for their return to the USA after two years here; she is also getting attention on all sides since she picked up an ear infection and has succeeded in going at least temporarily deaf. The poor soul was quite leery of securing sensible medical attention since a South African friend of hers here in Lobito had quite a scare with her ear trouble. Seems as though the local doctor to whom this gal went for assistance became convinced that the trouble was caused by a spider which got into her ear, and he kept peering into it each day and telling her that it wasn't a discharge which appeared there but the spider's eggs! He refused to do anything about the spider as he seems to have been a member of the SPCA. He also came up with the excuse that anything he put into the ear might frighten the spider into moving up into the brain! Finally the gal became tired of being a walking menagerie and secured better medical attention from someone who wasn't a white witch doctor!

Mrs Zahl seems to be reconciled to meeting me all over Angola. I first saw her up at the hospital at the Protestant mission at Bela Vista (she was just visiting it). Then I met her again on the train which took us down to Lobito from Nova Lisboa. Seems like a long time since our wood-burner huffed itself out of the station at 6 p.m. on March 14, while half the local population, including the Governor and his familiar, waved farewell (not just to me, but at least I did manage to get embraced along with other departees!). I had a compartment to myself and travelled with more comfort than if I'd been on a Pullman; the bed was comfortable and there was running water, an electric fan, and similar pleasant reminders of civilization. Mrs Zahl was with a Canadian missionary from Bela Vista; we had dinner together (very poor food--quite a let-down from the goodies we ate when I was travelling between Vila Luso and the frontier). I slept so-so that night as the train seemed to be under the guidance of a rock-and-roll fan; Mrs Zahl picked up her ear trouble that night and hasn't been the same since! When she reached the hotel, she found that Esther had misread her letter (she'd taken the chance and written in English) and thus she had no second-floor room with a balcony but had to be contented with a back room. For about five days, until her husband flew up from Mossamedes, she was miserable; I and a number of others kept looking in on her just to make sure that she was still with us. (I feel just as noble as a Boy Scout.) On the last night before her husband arrived, we decided to cause a real scandal (everyone in Lobito always knows what everyone else is doing and with whom); so I escorted her to dinner while she got in the spirit by drinking a beer. Only the fact that I am the Governor's guest prevented me from being ridden out of town on a rail! ("Just a gigolo, everywhere I go.")

Alex Zahl--her husband, who abandoned the well-drillers to preserve his wife's reputation--also to restore her to normal spirits. (She's back to drinking tomato juice.) He is a very nice man of about fifty-five who reminds me of our old postman, Mr Minnick. He has had quite a life--travelled to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Venezuela, etc., in his job of opening up wells for oil or water. His hobby seems to be collecting Arabian rugs, though his wife apparently gives them away whenever she has the chance. He is just as disgusted at the lack of thorough sanitation in Angola as I am. In the camps there seems to be some sort of an epidemic every time they stay in one place for more than eight days. They could clear out the mosquitoes and end malaria if they'd only send up their DTA planes (the local airline) with DDT to dump all over the province. They surely should do it just for the flies, which I must admit are the worst plague I have yet encountered. In Benguela they were so awful that I had to keep one hand roving all the time to keep them off the food I was eating with the other one. Benguela's fishing industry is the villain; Emilio swears that these swarms are merely periodic and that my arrival is responsible for the current curse on this area! They really are bad--would drive any sanitary soul to a sanitarium within five minutes! I've been lunching with Emilio at the Hotel Tamariz in Benguela these past few days when I've been visiting various spots in that city; the hotel does its best to seem clean and the food really isn't bad--but those flies! I almost gave up the idea of eating but then had to remember that I am the guest of the Government so dare not offend them by indicating that the capital city is too unappetizing to eat in! Lobito has much less of a problem since it is largely sand. There must be some sort of a mosquito plague here for they use nets with the beds; I must admit that I've not been bothered by them. Lobito's southern end is just perfect for mosquitoes as there is plenty of tidal flat land for breeding. That section of this city, chiefly inhabited by Africans but with some "poor whites" now intermixed, is just about as dirty and unattractive as you can find; the only thing of beauty there is the large number of flamingoes that you usually can see wading through the mud in search of food.

Norman Bailey--the temporary Texaco representative here. A rather sad-faced bachelor who knows Milwaukee and Chicago well. He always gives me the impression of someone who was sent for but couldn't come! He seems to have discovered that gin-tonics and whisky-sodas are the answer to every local problem and has pursued these answers so well that he has become quite a favorite around Lobito.

Titch Parker--a short, dapper Scotchman who usually is somewhere near Norman Bailey. For nearly twenty-five years he has been with Casa Inglesa here; during this period, he doubtless has caused more mischief than any twenty-five other foreigners in Lobito. He has a rather unusual voice which is an open invitation to laughter, but his stories are absolutely priceless (that is, the ones that are fit to listen to!). The first evening that I was here I happened to be seated at a table near one where he and four other Englishmen were sitting; later they took coffee in the lounge as I was perched nearby reading the last issue of Time which Tony had been good enough to send down to me; still later they were seated at a table at the esplanade whither I fled around 11 p.m. in search of a cooling breeze and some ice cream (chocolate and vanilla--nothing to rave over but definitely refreshing). All evening, this crew did nothing but analyze and tear down the various members of the English-speaking mob in Luanda. Since I well knew everyone they were talking about in loud and vulgar tones, I really got an earful. Actually they didn't come up with any juicy scandal but rather indicated just how petty their combined minds were: haggled over the size of the U.S. Consul's waistline and discussed the South African Consul General's ability at tennis!

I had the chance to meet Titch a couple of nights later; I'd gone over for refreshment with the two doctors and Titch and Norman joined us. I must admit that I have not laughed so hard in years--tears were streaming down my cheeks and everyone else at the table was similarly affected. Everyone at the surrounding tables was affected too! Some of his escapades would make him No. 1 client for any psychiatrist in the world. I think that one could generalize by saying that Titch is just a dumpy, spoiled child (despite the fact that he must be over forty) who has never paid any heed to convention! He really should have been put in jail for some of the things he told about, but they all struck me as being perfectly hilarious. The best one had to do with him and his partner at Casa Inglesa. Some years ago they both had been drinking too much, and early in the wee hours of the hot Angolan morning they either went swimming or something which took them out of their rooms leaving the key behind them. They climbed up the wrong balcony--of course--and came into a room where two big, fat Belgians were snoring loudly. They left Madame alone but came up to her husband and stood over him long enough to emit a number of horrible groans and moans.

As Monsieur was coming to, in deep and sepulchral tones these two devils announced, "We've come to get you!" The next fifteen minutes in that room and throughout the Hotel Terminus could only be described as a combination of the Marx Brothers having a riot with Jerry Lewis and everyone on Phil Silvers's program. (Is he still as funny as before? I must admit that he is really the only comedian on TV who strikes me as being really funny.) Monsieur just about strangled in the sheets, while Madame gave a sufficiently good imitation of an air-raid siren to wake up the whole hotel and cause all the guests, clerks, etc., to run all over the place in various stages of undress. Some more hysterical souls thought there was either a fire or a lion in the place, and they were resolved to get themselves and their belongings out in time even if it meant tripping their neighbors who also were trying to do the same thing. The next morning, Titch felt remorseful (he and his partner in crime had coolly gone to their own room during the melee and had slept soundly through most of it) and went next door to apologize. When Madame opened the door, she was sure that the devil had come again and gave out with the loudest shriek ever to be registered in southern Angola. (A herd of zebra stampeded down the main streets of Mossamedes at the sound.) Titch ran out of the hotel and didn't show his face there for ten days; it didn't do him any good, though, as his baggage was sitting in the lobby when he finally did show up and was greeted by the manager in a most unfriendly manner.

On another occasion, Titch was entertaining an Englishman from the head office who during dinner confided that after years in the tropics he never slept in pyjamas but always in a sarong. The sight of this gentleman, who bore no resemblance to Dorothy Lamour, in a sarong was a strong incentive to Titch who plied him with strong drink until he groggily staggered up to bed. Later, Titch and his partner went into the bedroom and, sure enough, there was Egbert in a sarong. Again they fell prey to their lack of discipline and went up to the bed, shouted in loud voices, "We've come to get you," and jerked the sarong off the sleeper. The finale of this story isn't quite as riotous as the first, but it seems that Egbert was in good shape and gave the two boys quite a run for their money before he tripped over something in the dark and crashed into oblivion. The next morning this prince of hypocrites went to see the Englishman who was looking quite poorly and quite badly bruised. Expressing shocked sympathy, Titch was regaled by a fanciful story which concluded with Egbert's giving a violent oath and shouting loudly, "Titch, I swear I'll never come to Angola again! These Portuguese are absolutely immoral!" Titch's Portuguese audience appreciated this tale as much as the non-Portuguese!

On yet another occasion, Titch was attending an official function in Benguela in his capacity as the acting consul of Sweden. There's a lot of Scandinavian shipping here in West Africa and mostly the consuls are not Swedes. Such a man is Frank Hollis, an Englishman in Luanda who is Swedish and Danish consul there. He's been in Angola for thirty-five years and could have returned to England when he retired from heading the Angolan branch of the Casa Inglesa. But he has stayed on and still remains the greatest landmark in Luanda since he always appears in public dressed in a white suit, a high celluloid collar, and a white pith helmet. Everyone stops when he strides down the streets and just gapes with open mouth. The reason for his appearing as a walking museum piece is that, according to one local joke, years ago he ordered a dozen shirts with detachable collars and they sent him twelve dozen instead. (He is supposed to have been using up the collars ever since!)

Back to our overaged and overstuffed delinquent, though. Seems he was in an elegant white suit and some Portuguese lady, mistaking him for the head waiter, called out loudly, "Waiter! Bring me two whisky and sodas!" At this, Titch pulled himself up to his full five feet and belligerently snarled, "Madame, you have just insulted the Consul of Sweden and I am afraid that this matter may provoke a war." Upon this astonishing announcement, the senhora promptly gave a loud, wailing shriek and fainted onto a waiter who was approaching with a tray of drinks, sending these in all directions. The Governor of Benguela, who had witnessed the entire affair, was laughing his head off but finally regained his composure and went up to admonish Titch by shaking his head disapprovingly and saying, "Naughty! Naughty!" (Some of the words that the Portuguese learn in English come out with astonishing results when used on the proper occasion; a waiter here at the hotel brought the chit for Mr Zahl to sign and the latter jokingly just marked an "X." In excellent Americanese, the African smilingly remarked, "Come now, you can do better than that!")

Dr Pinto Coelho ("Chicken Rabbit") and Dr Monica (called familiarly "Harmonica")--two Portuguese medics who came down for a year of adventure in Africa but found that their service for the Benguela Railway and its fine hospital has afforded them little excitement. Dr "Chicken Rabbit" should have found some excitement with the opposite sex as he is barely thirty, has a good mouthful of teeth (rather a rarity in this land without dentists), and a wonderful sense of humor. He and I get along splendidly since there is usually some stupid conversation like this as we eat at adjacent tables: "Wash the blood off your hands, Doc?" "No, thanks, I want to prove to my bosses that I'm earning my salary" or "Don't you feel sorry for me--I have to go to the hospital today" (and every other day too).

Dr Viera Martins--head of the Veterinary Service for the district. A very able man and a kind one too--would be in some high post in Lisbon if he hadn't gotten so used to preserving specimens that he's now preserving his own body in alcohol. (The consumption of whiskey in Lobito is absolutely astounding--whiskey must be the leading import from England!) I met him last Sunday (March 17) when he picked me up in his Dodge stationwagon and drove me over to the other side of the bay. As we ascended the bluffs, we could not only see the peninsula of Lobito (wonderful for photography and hope my slides do it justice!) but also the effects of the microclimate (small area with considerable change): the green on the tops of the bluffs is due to more rain falling there than at lower elevations. Cattle are now pasturing there. (No trouble in getting steaks at this hotel--only problem is getting one that is well-done and not too tough!) First we stopped to enter a cave which is being exploited for its bat guano (these people have the most fantastic items on their itineraries for me!), an item which'd make anyone rich if there were enough of it. It was cool inside the cave--which was a blessed relief. The heat and humidity of the littoral have just about become "old stuff" to me after ten days here, but I still don't like them. I take an average of four showers a day (so does everyone else!) and the last one at night has always managed to send me off to sleep feeling surprisingly comfortable.

Then we returned to the brilliant sunshine and drove to the bottling plant where soda water is bottled. The first three days at the hotel I drank this but have switched to one with less "fizz"; in fact, I've even drunk the local water which the doctors swear is potable. If it isn't then all of the local residents must be ill from something. I rather approach the water problem with trust that Portuguese bodies are just as likely to be affected by germs as ours and hence anything that they would eat or drink here would serve for us as well. On the other hand, the Zahls refuse to drink anything which they've not put halizone tablets in or boiled, etc. Both of us are still going strong. We didn't get to see the plant since it is locked on Sundays but went down to the beach under a broiling sun and found an African who tried desperately to dive successfully for the lobster that the doctor wanted to buy. No luck--so we watched the air-conditioned ship Mocambique come into port and drove back to the Radio Clube de Lobito where we joined some Portuguese pals of the doctor's in the veranda restaurant. You can feed bread to the small fish that approach the shore or watch the water-skiers, etc. The doctor is a thoroughly interesting man who's been in Africa for thirty-five years, and he thinks that he knows the answers to most of Africa's problems. I can't say that I agree with these answers. For instance, he is convinced that the blacks here absolutely hate the whites and that if Europeans are to have any say-so in the Africa of the future, they will have to dominate by force. He's been to South Africa and discussed the very real hatred of all the races in that unhappy land for all the other races. He also is a fisherman--like many people here. You can find someone surf-casting off the peninsula at almost any time of the day or night. His record is a 400 lb. shark. They claim that there's no danger of swimming off the peninsula here, but that one doesn't dare do it in Mocambique.

Father William Tulleken C. S. Sp.--missionary pastor of St Joseph's church in one of the poorer areas of Lobito. This Dutchman looks just like Father Breitenbach and was a schoolmate in France of Sr Cochat (who is a "free-thinker" and cannot understand how the greatest "imp" in the school could have given up his mischief and undertaken his current duties). He speaks fine English and his bookshelves are loaded with our pocket books. I got to go to confession with him--first priest who spoke English since Luanda--and am having him to dinner here tomorrow evening. We are fortunate in having a lovely little chapel to Our Lady just five minutes' walk from the hotel and especially fortunate in that the daily Mass there is at 7.30 a.m. Usually the Mass is anywhere from 5 a.m. on! I have managed to get to Mass daily there and feel much better about participating in Lenten devotions that way. Since I've been in priestless places for so much of this trip, I really have appreciated the need for missionaries here in Africa. The pastor is a darkish young man who zips around on parish business via a motorbike. His Sunday sermons are short and to the point, but the effect is lost because he cannot bear to look at anyone while he is talking! His congregation includes all of the residents of Regina and it is in their favor that they seem to understand what is going on at Mass more than any other parishioners I have seen: they all use their Missals and there are as many men at the 8 a.m. Sundays as women.

Dick J. Houk--a garrulous geographer....


Richard J. Houk is Professor Emeritus of Geography at DePaul University and Faculty Moderator for the DePaul Geographic Society.

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