Today I woke in a state of great and not unjustifiable excitement; it was the first day of my cultural pilgrimage (my spell-check just corrected that to pilferage, which may be more accurate…) to two islands in the far north of the country; the eponymous Ilha de Mocambique and Ilha de Ibo.
People here reserve a special tone of voice for talking about ‘The North’: it is invariably described as the ‘wild’ and ‘real’ Mozambique. It is the source of some of country’s most recognisable cultural phenomena such as the ebony carvings of the Makonde and the silver jewellery of the Kimwani and Macua, but it is also isolated, impoverished and has significantly lower standards of living than in the south.
Though Ibo and Ilha are firmly on the beaten track by Mozambican standards, it is still an exhausting and complicated track to follow. Think 9 hours lying on coils of old rope and sacks of potatoes on the back of a pick up truck – sound romantic? It was for the first 3 – 4 hours, then I would have sold a kidney if it had made us arrive any more quickly. But I’ll save that for tomorrow’s entry. Before that bone-jangling experience, I had to get to Pemba and find a place to spend the night.
Pemba’s accommodation situation is polarised to say the least, with choice limited to either 5 star resorts charging $400 a night or a bug infested room with no electricity (for which you will still pay $30). So I decided to couch surf in Pemba and got lucky. There is only one host with more than two references in Pemba and his name is Estacio Valoi. He is an investigative journalist and professional adrenaline junkie with the self-preservation of a stool. He is also a deeply principled person who is governed by unshakable convictions and a irrepressible sense of justice. Fortunately for me, he was also in Maputo and was booked onto the same flight as I was.
Having forgotten that Maputo’s airport has only four gates in the terminal which receives domestic flights, I got to the airport and was through security with nearly two hours to spare. Fortunately, the one cafe in the upstairs terminal had tongue sandwiches on the menu (well, obviously) so I was able to get breakfast. Estacio showed up a little while later, wearing combat shorts and vest, with two huge DSLRs slung around his hips, every inch the gun-slinging journalist.
The flight was uneventful and we were soon making our sweeping descent over a vast expanse of virgin bushland, crisscrossed with veins of darker green where the trees found water. One orange dust road cut through the greenery, as straight as a knife. We glimpsed small settlements and the roofs of reed huts. The land was bordered by a turquoise stripe, muddied in one place by the grey-green of a huge river emptying itself into the sea, its tributaries winding through the electric green of mangroves.
The plane banked in a smooth curve over the sea as we came in over the peninsular and Pemba’s sprawl of tin houses and coconut trees. I spot a silvery baobab, huge even from the plane.
I did not get to see much of Pemba in the end as we went straight back to Estacio’s place on Wimbe beach. As we were walking out of the terminal, a policeman shouted at Estacio and clapped a hand down onto his shoulder. I was instantly on the alert – was my couch-surfing host and the only person I knew in Pemba about to be arrested? Estacio whirled around and dramatically held out both hands to be handcuffed, then they both collapsed into a fit of giggles and back slapping. A friend apparently.
As we walked over to where his driver had parked, Estacio made a surprised noise.
“Don’t know where he got this car from.” He said to himself. “Hey, Juju, where’d you steal the car, eh?”
Then he turned to me with a serious expression.
“He really stole it.”
I spent that evening being regaled with stories of hunting elephant poachers in the bush and being threatened by the shadowy figures sent by mining companies accused of committing human rights abuses. I asked Estacio what the most frightening of all his experiences had been and, grinning, he told me all about the time he went under-cover in a drug trafficking ring and was made to ‘test the product’ with them.
We had a delicious supper of fried prawns and rice with ice-cold red wine he had been keeping in the freezer. We talked about literature and the famous intellectuals he knew in Maputo and the disadvantages of drinking on the job:
“I never drink when I’m working on a piece. When I drink, I write fiction.” He said with a grin.