May 30, 2011

Cuca Chess Tournament

Africa...I've always dreamed to put my foot on African red soil, to discover unknown places, to understand the people's life and their history, to eat crocodiles (this idea was given by Sergey Tiviakov:) or just to stare around, absorbing as much as possible.

Many chess players don't realize what a great opportunity they have thanks to the activity we practice. Without chess, probably it wouldn't have even crossed my mind to visit Angola!
I am an open person, quite adventurous, I love travelling, but I also have my fears and the unknown sounds scary most of the times. But just like when you are trying to play a new opening, a little bit of information will reveal wonderful insights, depths which you couldn't have possibly discover without a dash of courage. And just like Nigel Short told me: "who dares-wins; you'll be rewarded for your bravery", this is exactly what happened. I won all my games and I had a fantastic time visiting beautiful places with my new friends. What could be better than that?!
For more pictures, see the chessbase reports on and

With only ten days before the Cuca Tournament had actually started, I've arranged everything, from tickets, documents, vaccination, to reassuring my family members that I will be extremely careful. Ten days might sound more than enough but practically speaking, it was really not so easy. Lots of emails, phone calls to embassies, border police, travel agencies, flight companies...all of them took time and energy. But the most consuming thought was the one which was stubbornly flashing in my brain: "is this a good decision?!" is perhaps the most mysterious location on my travel list that gave me trepidation... I had looked forward to this trip with so much anticipation and anxiety! The only problem was that we know so little about the country itself, about its people, and all my friends and my family were worried that something could happen to me. This had some influence of course, I was alert at all times, in case something might go wrong.

After more than 25 years of civil war, how would I find the country and the people? Would I be able to sense tension in the air or have the Angolans put the internal strive behind them? And how would they view outsider from the bastion of capitalism?

Like a child who is flying for the first time, there are all sorts of thoughts that pass through the young mind as an airplane is landing at a new destination. After several take-offs, landings and as the child grows older, the excitement subsides, but I think touching down in Africa is different. That excitement of the unknown (be it good or bad) is always there because you never really know what to expect.

So there I was, in Luanda, Angola's capital! Looking back, I can't stop smiling, especially when I remember the "crazy" thoughts I had before. Although I've always said not to have preconceived opinions, I have to admit that...I kind of had them. I did have expectations and not the best ones ever...but once there, everything went so incredibly smooth, people were so nice and kind, I was winning game after game, I was sightseeing, the food was delicious, the weather was perfect (around 26 degrees, winter time:), simply wonderful!

Angola's colonial past has left its mark in many ways. The Portugese architecture is one of the most noticeable and really makes Luanda a beautiful city. Of course it has its problems but the city is full of amazing streets, avenues, statues and buildings.

I might go even further by saying that I didn't feel any "devastating" cultural shock. A little known fact for foreigners: Luanda was ranked the most expensive city in the world for expatriates in a 2010 study by the Mercer consulting firm, ahead of Paris, London and Tokyo. While most Angolans live in poverty, expatriates pay upwards of $15-20,000 a month to rent a 3BR house. A moderate dinner typically costs $100 per person (without wine!), and a 3-star hotel room will run at least $300 a night.
Yikes! When I wasn't squeezed in traffic or making pictures, I spent most of my free time in Luanda marveling at the prices. Of strawberry jam, of meat and toilet paper and motor oil. All very, very expensive. I won't even mention the souvenirs prices, absolutely insane!

Expensive but beautiful
So I took them anyway:)

I wish I knew more about history and economics to be able to explain why prices are so high. Poor Angolans at the bottom of the food chain depend on fishing and street selling to earn a living. There is a booming informal economy that caters to those who can't afford to go to shops. But my skin colour didn't help me at all when triying along the streets to negociate for an avocado:) So it's true, Angola is a rich country, with a great potential, but its people are poor...

And still, I have never seen so many cranes, building building building, visible from whichever street corner you would be gazing from. A clear sign of Angola's rebirth after years of debilitating warfare. Here in the heady heat of equatorial Africa you'll encounter some of the continent's most gracious people and discover many of its most closely guarded secrets. I am so happy and greatful that I've got this chance!

If speaking about the negative aspects...well, they are part of the whole deal, delivering a more real and deeper understanding of the place. You will surely not get bored in a city full of contrasts, with beautiful colonial buildings surrounded by, to put it mildly, "modest" residential areas...if walking on the streets, despite the traffic lights (which never work by the way), one should always be aware that cars appear from nowhere! Forget about rules and pedestrian crossing, it might cause you even more trouble:) All the cars around me were brand new, most of them 4x4, so you could see that a lot of cash was floating around the city.

As about Angolans: it's obvious to me now that latin blood is flowing through their veins. I've been welcomed with so much enthusiasm, with open arms, smiles and kisses, that I started to wonder if it's real or it's just my excited imagination.

But now I understand, they love life and they just want to live as much as possible in the present. The other side of the coin is that time enters a completely different dimension than the one we are used to in European countries. Probably because of the heat, probably because of their nature or history, somehow you cannot be sure if "manana" (tomorrow), it really means fact, I am afraid that "manana" should be translated with "never":) But this is surely not done on purpose! They just lack the organizational skills and they are so tied up with the present moment that what will happen later on is not a priority..."I will think about it tomorrow" - just like Scarlett O'Hara used to say in the book "Gone with the wind" by Margaret Mitchell - maybe not such a bad advice for the stressed and wrinkled people from the "modern" countries.

Because I've just mentioned the organizational part, I shouldn't forget a few details about the tournament. The people are generous, kind and they all mean well, but they have some small problems with communication. If you are used with the Angolan style, you would probably relax, assuming that everything will turn out just fine. Which it did, but you just have to be persistent and repeat your concerns. I am sure that next year, with more experience, all issues will be sort out in shorter time. Angolan Chess Federation has a great potential and I wouldn't be surprised if we will start seeking for more and more International Tournaments in this beautiful country. After all, the tournament hall, the prize fund, the accommodation, everything was arranged so that the invited players will have a great time. And I must say, this trip was clearly one of the best I've ever had!

The only thing which gave me some headaches was the noise. Starting with Friday evening until Monday morning, Luanda was turning into a giant party zone. Music was bursting from everywhere and my bed was literally shaking! It took me some time to accept that I can't do anything and to drink a LOT of coffee to cope with tiredness during my games. But all worked fine eventually. 
And I kind of like the African beats:)

Although I was looking forward to taste some local dishes, in our hotel we mainly had Portuguese cuisine, very good, but not Angolan:) Eventually my wish came true: I tried their typical dish: Funge!

Preparing the famous funge
Anja Mutic

FUNGE: The staple of the Angolan diet. It can be made with corn meal (funge) or with yucca/manioc flour. I've had both and prefer funge. People say it's like polenta- but it is not like polenta! Neither really have any flavor, so you eat it with whatever food is on your plate. I can't say it's my favourite but it's quite good:)

My first time to Africa, first time to Angola...Luanda was surely a wonderful choice! Looking forward to come back and I hope this tournament opened the "closed doors" for many other chess players. If you are interested in experiencing something out of the ordinary, if the cultural differencies don't scare you and if you "dare" to go somewhere without loads of information, you might consider playing a chess tournament in Angola in the future. You may enjoy it more than you think!


  1. You have made my eyes drool! I must visit Angola one time...

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