So I tried and failed to come up with a coherent strategy of describing my first week here – there was so much going on, so many different experiences and emotions flying around, that it seemed reductive to try and unify all of it into one descriptive post.
First impressions of a place are never particularly coherent. But hopefully, anyone who reads this blog (DOES anyone read this blog?!) will get some sense of what my first week here was like. Enjoy!
1. Maputo smells like Marzipan
This sounds cheesy. And it is. But it is also true thanks to the many frangipan trees planted all around the city. Mia Couto makes reference to this tree in his novel A Varanda do Frangipani (Under the Frangipan: http://www.amazon.com/Under-Frangipani-Mia-Couto/dp/1846686768) which I HIGHLY recommend you all read.
Frangipan trees look a bit like they might have come out of a 3D printer, thanks to their weird plasticky flowers.
One of the most pleasant things about being in this city is being able to sit on my balcony at dusk, feeling the warm breeze blowing off the Indian ocean and breathing in the smell of these DIVINE flowers. And this isn’t even poetic exaggeration, this is genuinely how what my life is like now *smug smile*….
…unless of course it’s raining. Maputo smells like wet-dog in the rain.
2. Maputo is completely heterogeneous.
It is easy to get stuck in the white/black, Portuguese/Mozambican, Western/African mind-set. But that is a simplification. I don’t think I have ever been to a place that is as diverse as Maputo, and I’m not just talking ethnically, although there is ethnic diversity… Black Mozambicans, Mulatto Mozambicans, White Mozambicans, Mozambicans of South Asian origin, Portuguese, African, Chinese, Indian, European, Chope, Tsonga, Macua, Makonde….. etc etc etc. (You get the picture)
You also have people from all possible economic backgrounds, from the disgustingly wealthy to the utterly destitute. You have rural Mozambicans who have come to Maputo to make a living and who bring with them their traditional beliefs like witchcraft and ancestor worship, but you also have totally westernized, wealthy Mozambicans and expats from the USA and Europe driving around in huge Range Rovers. You have people who only buy food from the hugely over priced supermarkets and those who go to people selling just one thing i.e. crabs, mango, or mandioca, in the street.
It seems like a deeply polarized society and in many ways it is. But it is also a fluid and syncretistic society. People never seem comfortable to define themselves as one thing, despite the highly stratified, often segregated nature of the place.
3. Maputo is an architectural treasure trove!
But seriously, Maputo is a very cool place architecturally speaking. Over the years a lot has been demolished, whilst even more has been left to crumble into a state of charming dilapidation with the result that the city today is a hotchpotch of buildings from different eras, and walking through it is like walking through all of the extraordinary political changes the country has undergone in the past century.
The above photo, taken from my balcony, is nothing particularly special, but it still gives a rough idea of what I’m talking about:
The oldest buildings are the tiny white houses with red roofs – they are super Portuguese in style and could have been airlifted from any street in Lisbon: this is basically Portugal saying, “This country is mine now. ALL MIIIIINE!”
On the corner of the street on the left is a classic example of Maputo’s Art Deco architecture. Most of downtown, a Baixa, was built in this style. And most of these buildings are in desperate need of a lick of paint but for me, such decrepitude only adds character. N.B. Works by Gustav Eiffel can be found throughout Maputo, including the famous Casa de Ferro.
In the back ground you can see a modernist tower block: like Art Deco, Modernism was and is a big thing in Maputo and the city has some really interesting examples of work by Pancho Guedes and others. Check out the link for more pics: http://whatsonafrica.org/maputomodernism/
Finally, on the far left you can see a new building being thrown up. There are huge construction projects going on here at the moment thanks to a successful economic climate. However, when you see how so much money being poured into such big projects (nearly always in the wealthiest areas of Maputo), you do wonder if it wouldn’t be better used else where…
4. Maputo is GREEN!
Hallelujah! After living in Santiago for 6 months which soul-crushingly urban, it is a relief to finally see some foliage…
Maputo is bursting at the seams not just with greenery but with wild-life too!
The old pavements are full of potholes and enormous lumps and bumps where the huge acacia trees’ roots are slowly pushing the paving stones out of the way. The air is filled with butterflies and moths and it is common to see gala-galas (lizards) basking in the sunshine. The streets are lined with the most beautiful trees – jacaranda, acacia and frangipan, often with trunks wide enough to fit a small car through. Trees are sacred here and have a special role in communicating with the ancestors and spirits. Perhaps this is why no matter how large a tree gets or how destructive an effect it has on the buildings around it, the council won’t chop it down…
Most exotic of all, however, are the fruit bats!
You see them at dusk swooping around the tops of buildings and I occasionally hear them too, squeaking and snarling as they hunt for supper.
N.B. If you go down to the botanical garden you will find a tree where about 30 nest. You can work out where they are by the half eaten plums and excrement littering the floor. Nice.
5. Bob Dylan obviously never came here…
…because if he had he would have written a song about frango piripiri and terrible, heat-stroke hangovers. Forget all that tosh about dancing on a moonlit beach. It’s a serious party town which means serious hangovers.
“I like to spend some time in Mozambique
The sunny sky is aqua blue
And all the couples dancing cheek to cheek
It’s very nice to stay a week or two
And fall in love just me and you….”
Er yeah… or not, Bob.
I marked the end of my first week in Maputo with an appalling hangover made so much worse by the unrelentingly hot weather. I had gone out the night before with all the right intentions of having only one or two cervejinhas at the Asociação de Musicos Moçambicanos *RECOMMENDED* before getting an early night. But things escalated pretty rapidly and before I knew it, the sun had been up for two hours and I was finally arriving home, limping from blisters sustained by hours of dancing marrabenta and clutching an avocado picked from one of trees under which all this debauchery had been taking place.
I know, I know… it’s a hard life.