Kaninmambo, Mozambique!

One girl's misadventures studying abroad in Maputo, Mozambique.

Tag: Tropical Paradise

Travels in the North: Day 17

The trip to Matemo island was nearly rained off. A group of us ate a chilly breakfast together, watching and waiting for the break in the blanket of clouds which would signal our departure.

Despite having been on Ibo for two weeks, I hadn’t yet been on any of the Dhow trips and tours which are the main activities for tourists on the island and so, feeling I ought to see more of the archipelago before I left, I signed up for a trip with the Californian couple and two French doctors from Bordeaux. I was looking forward to getting out on the water (even if the sails would be furled the whole way).

As we chugged out of the little harbour which was choked with seaweed and plastic, the pale grey sea was as calm and featureless as the sky above it, and in the watery light, the island seemed washed out, like a half-finished painting. As we passed the pontoon where the cargo dhows dock, a barefoot man improbably dressed in a full dinner jacket suit, waved us off.

The Californians were not sailors; he was silent the whole way, eyes fixed on the horizon, and we were told later he suffered from terrible seasickness, whilst she became rather nervous when the one crew member began bailing out a small quantity of water from the bottom of the boat, and asked whether there were life jackets? There weren’t of course.

Dhow

It was a fun day, even if it did qualify as ‘Organised Fun’: we motored out to a point just behind a reef where a large pod of dolphins were feeding and enjoyed watching them jump and play around the boat, and hearing them exhale as they  came up for air. Then we were taken to the site of an old wreck where we were armed with snorkels and told to jump in. This was less successful as the current was so strong that it took a good five minutes of hard swimming just to get back to the boat twenty metres away, but the water was crystal clear and as warm as a bath. The weather gradually improved so that by the time we reached the Sand Bank, a long hump of white sand which looked like it had fallen straight out of treasure island, we were able to enjoy our sandwiches in what is perhaps the most idyllic spot for a picnic in the world. Some serious beach combing ensued before we all had to pile back onto the boat again, so that I could be dropped off at Matemo.

boat sandbank

Matemo, or Matemwe, as it is locally known, is the second-largest island in the archipelago. It was thought to have been settled by the time the Portuguese arrived in the area, and supposedly was a refuge for a Muslim community of cloth makers who were driven there from the mainland by the Zimba raids of the 16th century. Today, Matemo remains stubbornly underdeveloped; there are only two villages on the island, no electricity and very little tourism, albeit for the odd passer-by. Matemo is a cliché; achingly beautiful, there is an Edenic quality to its great sweeping beaches, the lush vegetation and the sighing coconut groves. Life here has not changed much in the intervening centuries.

We waded the hundred metres to the beach where I was to be dropped through aquamarine water which came up to our thighs. On the rocky bottom, we could see the dark stains of sea-urchin colonies, like patches of moss growing in crevices and up the sides of gullies. Needless to say, we trod carefully. I bid goodbye to the others on the beach, before getting a lift on Dade’s son’s motorbike (Dade is the owner of the only place to stay on the island – a collection of 5 lean-to’s on the beach) to the other side of the island. The ride was an exhilarating dash along five kilometres of white sand, still damp from the ebbing tide and along dirt tracks through the string of settlements which line the “main road”.

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I was shown to my lean-to which was draped artfully in capulanas and very much mosquito proof. I discovered the only other guest at Dade’s place that night was an exceedingly tall Spanish psychologist who towered at least 3 foot over the tallest of the locals. He’d been living on the island for three months, conducting research into the cultural relativity of facial expressions and spoke with the kind of garbling breathlessness which suggested he had not spoken to many people for a while. He seemed pleased to welcome a fresh face to the island, though he was deeply offended when I told him I would only be staying one night.

“People only ever come for a night or two! They miss so much! This is a really special place!”

He was the sort of person incapable of giving a short answer and a relatively simple question would elicit an answer of considerable length and irrelevance. However, I was impressed with his Kimwani which he spoke with a smattering of Portugnol.

After an enormous dinner which I scoffed quickly in the fading light, I went and sat on the beach, relishing in the strange sensation of not having any electricity. My phone had also died and it was a revelation to suddenly be so disconnected. How peaceful it was! The sliver of a new moon was a filament in the sky and I watched and listened to the sounds of children round the orange glow of a fire further up the beach. Out to sea, a few weak points of light, battery-run torches at the base of a mast perhaps. Save that, all was comforting, amniotic darkness and I slept deeply in my little shelter, listening to the sound of the tide and the nighttime orchestrations of birds and insects.

The psychologist had been right: one night was not enough.

matemo beach sunset

The Half Way Point: A New Phase

“Ever step you take is forever. You can’t make it go away. None of it. You understand what I’m sayin?”
Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men

And so, I reach the dreaded half-way point of my stay in Maputo. Dreaded because as any good pessimist will tell you, my glass is now officially half empty and filled with various regrets and “Should haves…”. So I resolve to spend the next two months correcting those mistakes, in order to return to England satisfied that I made the most of my precious time here.

Whether by mistake or by design, I feel as though I am entering into a new phase of my stay here. The first two months of confusion and settling-in are coming to a close and I am anxious to take advantage of my increased confidence to do something worthwhile with my ample free time. This has coincided with my meeting the volunteers from the Gabinete de Cooperacao at the university, who are tasked with receiving new students. They are an extremely out-going and academically gifted bunch and I only wish someone had told me about them when I first arrived. We had a dinner last night and have now set up a whatsapp group of about 20 people so that ‘sempre tiveres alguém para te fazer companhia’ (you always have someone to keep you company.) They have also been responsible for introducing me to the Associacao Yinguissa Mocambique, a charitable association which carries out ‘good works’ in the local neighbourhood of Maxaquene. I will be volunteering as an English teacher in the local primary school library and as general pair of hands with them for the next two months. And so, I feel the cogs have begun to turn and hope that my last two months here will be spent productively sewing the seeds for a possible return.

Appropriately enough, to underpin the beginning of this ‘new phase’, yesterday was my first day in a new house in Coop, an old, middle-class neighbourhood which backs onto the university campus in the north of the city centre. When I wake up in the mornings, I can hear bird song which is a revelation. Gone are the flash new cars of Polana’s expats and the cacophony created by heavy traffic and several building sites which I had become accustomed to down town.  In pleasant contrast to Polana, sleepy Coop has a distinctly Mozambican feel to it; thanks to its proximity to the University of Eduardo Mondlane, its leafy streets are filled with students walking to lessons and hawkers selling street food.

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There is an avocado tree in our neighbours’ tiny garden. It has grown on a patch of turf the size of a bin lid and appears to have tried to compensate for these meagre origins by growing as tall and thin as it possibly can, with the result that it has the strangely elastic appearance of having been stretched. Large avocados the colour of tennis balls knock against the second and third floor windows. I wonder if each floor claims a section of this gangling tree as their own: do fierce disputes erupt from time to time over the boundary lines between Flat 2 and Flat 1’s limber territories? Perhaps Flat 2 and Flat 1 wake up one morning to find that Flat  3 has launched a surprise ambush overnight and has name-tagged every fruit in sight in an outrageous attempt to assert their sovereignty over the entire tree. These are the things that go on under the surface in suburban Mozambique.

A ‘Rough’ Guide To The Markets Of Maputo

I have a confession to make: I adore markets. No, scrap that. I am OBSESSED with markets, a condition which is definitely congenital, and another thing for which I must thank my long suffering parents. Where ever I go in the world, one of the very  first  places I will visit will be the market. Forget the museum or the gallery or the cafe. The market is where it’s at.

Why so obsessed? I hear you ask.

Well, there are many reasons: Firstly, you can always depend on The Market for providing you with a cheap and tasty meal (always a priority in my book). Secondly, they offer an unparalleled opportunity for the traveler or tourist to experience a culture in 4D; they are the stained-glass windows through which we peep into another culture.

Food is one of, if not the most fundamental pillar of any culture, as it is the one thing which connects people across all social classes; it is home, it is childhood, and as you, the foreigner, lift the spoon to your lips and breath in that particular aroma, you are partaking in a universal cultural experience and can, if only for a moment, catch a glimpse of what it feels like to belong. The expat constructs their own cultural childhood in a new country as they slurp from dishes of steaming soup and suck meat from charred bones in the dark and warrenous passageways of The Market.

However, markets are not just about food. They are about language too, as our ears are assaulted by a tumbling barrage of foreign sounds. And with language comes The People. You want to understand how a foreign culture operates? Go to the market and observe. Are people direct or reserved? How much eye contact do they tolerate? How loudly do they speak? Subconsciously we build a simple profile of cultural behaviours which we can then adopt ourselves.

And yes, I’m a romantic. I love markets for what they SIGNIFY. That ancient, symbolic space where a culture and a people have always intermingled with other cultures and other peoples in trade and in friendship.

But enough of that guff……

The most important thing, has to be the most practical and that is: weekly grocery shopping.

Oh yes, this is a post about going to the supermarket! Well, not quite.

Before I came to Maputo, several different uninformed types told me food in Maputo is Expensive with a capital ‘E’ and that I shouldn’t shop in the market because it is unhygienic and, wait for it…. DANGEROUS.

Apparently, just like chapas, markets are places where you’re gonna get assaulted and robbed.

Sound like a load of old tosh? That’s cos it is!

I imagine this prejudice stems from the fact that these people have always had staff. Therefore, their logic is that the market is the place where staff and other rough, common types go, certainly not a place for the Master and Mistress.

(Oh wait…Surely not another smug post! )

Food in Maputo is expensive….. if you shop in the supermarkets and only eat out in the ‘posh’ restaurants (some of which I’m sure are pretty good, if remarkably overpriced.)

Compared to southern Europe where high quality fruit and veg are available at ridiculously low prices, the produce available in supermarkets in Mozambique, most of which is actually imported from South Africa, is extremely pricey for what it is: think sad, greying cauliflowers triple wrapped in plastic, the spinsters of the vegetable tray, or carrots which are so bitter and mushy, you’d rather use cigarettes for crudités than have to chew your way through such disappointment.

My advice is simple: DO NOT GO TO THE SUPERMARKETS.

Apart from their being horribly overpriced, they are not even convenient as they are no where near as widely spread as they are in the UK meaning that in all likelihood there will NOT be one near your house. And you’re just going to be giving money to horrible, blood-sucking, exploitative corporations, most of them not even Mozambican.

By going to the Market however you are:

  • Supporting small traders, most of whom are women, and thereby contributing to the local economy. This also makes market shopping a deliciously FEMINIST ACT.
  • Buying fresh produce for much fairer prices.
  • Forming relationships with local people via friendly negotiation and commerce.
  • Learning the local language and customs and local ingredients which lady traders will happily tell you how to prepare.

And so without further ado I present, my guide to the markets of Maputo. (N.B. This is a work in progress so stay tuned for updates)

Mercado Central (The Central Market)

Where: Located on Avenida 25 de Septembro, in the Baixa, the heart of downtown Maputo, the Mercado Central’s proximity to various essential Maputo sites makes this the most touristy of all Maputo’s markets.

I visited the Mercado Central during my first week in Mapto whilst on a walking-tour of the Baixa and whilst the range of produce on offer seemed the most comprehensive of the markets I’ve visited, it is as tourist-trappy as any market in Africa can be. Prices were higher and not as negotiable, although the girls were happy to let me try some of the more exotic fruits (for a fee). There was also a bit of hassle with hawkers selling handicrafts. “Miss! Miss! Hello! Good Morning! Miss!”. OK, if you’re just visiting once but having to put up with being treated as the tourist every week whilst doing your shop would probably get a bit tedious.

What: A wide selection of fruit and vegetables including exotic delights such as massala, ata and mafiloa. Homemade chutnies and piri-piri. A more limited selection of fish and meat both fresh and dried. And also some handicrafts – wickerwork etc.

Atmosphere: Housed in a beautiful building considered the twin of the Railway Station, the Central Market is a must-see. It is probably the most tastefully presented and well-ordered of the markets. However, because of the higher numbers of tourists who visit there both the atmosphere and the prices can be a little bit less ‘friendly’.

Best Buy: Wicker work and fruit.

$$$:….significantly higher than elsewhere.

Mercado Janeta

Where: On the intersection between Avenida Vladmir Lenin with Mao Tse Sung. Round the corner from Fatima’s backpackers.

What: Fruit and veg, dried fish, clothes, hair salons, brica-brac, seamstresses, cheap restaurants.

Atmosphere: A bit more of a local’s place, it fills up at lunch time when people come in to have chicken and rice or stew and xima for low prices. Expect to pay 150 – 200 mets for an enormous portion of whatever you order.

Best Buy: A cheap and cheerful lunch, a weave or braids.

$$$: Not as expensive as Mercado Central, but still a bit pricey because of its proximity to Fatima’s hostel and its central location. Though not a tourist hub, it is recommended in most guides so enough foreigners have wandered in here to make the traders pretty wily. I remember, my first time there, the woman I was buying from calmly told me potatoes were 100 mets a kilo (they’re normally 30 – 40). She took quite a bit of convincing otherwise.

Mercado Estrela

Where: In Malhangalene. Avenida Acordos de Lusaka (I think). But ask any taxi driver – they will know.

What: Stolen luxury goods, car parts, cars, motorcycles… and the best goat meat in Maputo.

Atmosphere: Definitely not for tourists, take all the necessary precautions. It is huge and sprawling and extremely masculine, the only women being the ones who work in some of the informal restaurant in the main body of the market. Think large crowds of dodgy blokes. They shouldn’t give you too much hassle though if you are firm.

Best Buy: A mac book pro (it might even be YOUR mac book pro which was stolen last week.), anything which you’ve had nicked, and ……. GOAT MEAT.

This last one cannot be stressed enough. Going into the section of the market which is covered from the East, you need only walk 20 yards through the tunnels of shacks until you happen upon the back of a concrete establishment painted red.

This place serves the best goat stew in all of Maputo, dark with honey and richly spiced. You even see ministers from the government sneaking in dressed in their suits. They serve the whole animal including the head (though you have to order that specially). Order the stew including offal accompanied with xima and prepare for a serious mouthgasm.

$$$: 500 USD for a Mac Book Pro. 200 meticais for the best goat you have ever eaten in your life.

Mercado Museu or Barracas do Museu

Where: Occupying the block behind the geology museum and next to the chapa station, this warrenous confusion of congregated iron shacks and concrete shells is best known among the ex-pats for being a cheap booze pick-up point.

The drill is this: the guys selling the booze run over to the cars and surround them, each one fighting and shouting over each other to get the order. The first bloke to run back to the stalls and get back to the car with your order gets the money. I remember being quite taken aback by the clamour of people the first time I went with friends to pick up some beers but it’s all part of the experience. Just be civil and calm.

 

What: On the east side of the market you can find the stalls selling groceries, fresh fruit and veg and dried and tinned goods. Also some hardware. And on the West side, booze and take-away food.

Atmosphere: Very much a local’s place and, as a result, it is a really friendly place once you get to know it. You will probably draw a fair amount of stares at first and maybe even some comments. I remember the first time I went in, a girl loudly asked her friend “What’s this white girl doing here?” It felt like a rhetorical question and she looked pretty moody so I decided not to stay and answer her.

However, I shop regularly with one woman on the west side of the market, buying all my cheap veggies there, including avocados for 20 mets! And she has been teaching me some basic changana which has been a fun challenge. I now greet her and order most of my shopping in changana which everyone who works at the market thinks is hilarious. A simple ‘See you tomorrow!’ will elicit gales of uproarious laughter from the traders. Maybe it’s my accent…

N.B. I went in a few days ago and it was one of the trader’s birthdays so the women were singing a traditional song for her and doing a procession. They presented her with various gifts – a set of glass serving bowls and 200 meticais was the big event, followed by pieces of fruit and other food.

Best buy: Groceries and cheap booze.

Chapas for Dummies or Top Tips for Shelving Shitty Chapa Shenanigans and Getting on the Boss Bus!

It’s taken me two long months but I can finally say ‘Up Your’s’ with confidence to all those expats and naysayers who predicted oh-so-confidently, that, once I had arrived in Mozambique and seen for myself, I would rather rub piri-piri in my eyes than travel by chapa in Maputo.

For those of you wondering what on earth I’m talking about, a chapa (pronounced ‘shapa’) is a minibus, typically with a capacity of 12 people but usually filled with approaching double that number. They are as hot and smelly as the underground at rush hour in August, and they are driven everywhere at top speed with music blaring from the speakers, which the driver and the cobrador will sing loudly and tunelessly along to. Imagine a tiny, rocket-propelled disco where no one is allowed to smile. Or a particularly funereal rugby scrum set to Shakira’s Waka-Waka: This Time for Africa.

View post on imgur.com

Oh. Dear. Lord.

Perhaps it’s understandable therefore that expats and wealthy residents of Maputo would rather tear out and eat their own pancreas than set foot in a chapa. After all, you wouldn’t want to stain your white linen suit or your cream gucci trousers, would you? And besides, Pedro’s got a new Range Rover. And I mean, just imagine if someone actually saw you getting out of the A Voador – Costo do Sol…….. It would be social suicide!?

I have heard the following complaints about chapas:

  • They are (extremely) dangerous –  if you walk out in front of them without looking and stop to look at your iphone, yeah they probably are. A bit like me.
  • You will be assaulted and robbed – only if you’re a moron with ya pearls hanging out your open Mulberry handbag.
  • They are unreliable – I have not yet waited more than 2 minutes for a chapa, there are literally hundreds of them.
  • They are smelly – Yes, can’t really argue here. But if you get a window seat, you’re laughing.
  • They are unhygienic – Oh yeah, because Africans don’t wash….
  • They are expensive – LOL. Not. No one has ever said this because a one way ticket costs £0.08.

I sensed that it was basically snobbery which stopped people taking chapas. 

What stopped me taking chapas initially was not knowing where the hell any of them went, as The Bradt Guide, which has been a fairly reliable beginners guide to Maputo observes: “You will probably have no idea where any of them are going at first.” SO TRUE.

However, through trial and error, and by taking quite a few chapas, I grew in confidence until I reached the stage where I would describe myself as a chapa pre-pro. Pre-pro because there are still some chapa frontiers which I haven’t yet crossed,  such as travelling at night – but I get around happily enough during the day.

It then occurred to me that some other would-be chapa user might also benefit from my hindsight and so I decided to create the Chapa Guide for Dummies aka:

My Top Tips for Shelving Shitty Chapa Shenanigans and Getting on the Boss Bus.

chapa

  1. Act Fast

Whether you are trying to cross the road in front of a chapa, hailing a chapa or boarding a chapa, speed is of the essence. Chapas wait for no guy or gal, and queues don’t happen. Once you have the driver or cobrador’s attention, you’re good to go. This means abandoning all pretense at polite behaviour.

You will find speed is not of the essence one you are inside the chapa and when you are trying to extricate yourself from the tangle of people squashed inside as in all likelihood you will not be able to move.

2. Know The Best Seats

Knowing which seat to sit in is crucial if you want to succeed in the Game of Chapas. 

squished chapa

Don’t be like the girl in the yellow top or the guy in red. They are definitely losing.

In order of preference from first til last:

Any window seat on the driver’s side– being squashed in tight is made more bearable by a refreshing breeze. You also have the option of travelling with half of your body outside the vehicle. Fun!

The front seat next to the driver – in theory this is really the best seat, although the fact I’ve seen people sharing it knocks it down a bit. The reason why I put it in at second is that this seat is given as a mark of respect: I have had cobrador’s who turf people out of the front seat so I can sit in it (it’s because I is white!).

I say this seat should be reserved for people who really need it – the pregnant, elderly and infirm. Therefore, second place. By all means, take it – if you can stand the guilt and the glares boring into the back of your head.

Any seat on the back-row / Any seat next to the window seat on the driver’s side –   –  Back-row is a safe zone where, unless you’re unlucky, you shouldn’t have to play much musical chairs to let other passengers off. Plus, more breeze.

Worst REAL seat – The folding seat in the aisle. Unstable, uncomfortable and you will constantly be having to get in and out of the chapa in order to let people off. No wider than 40 cms and shared with two or more people. You are the first to be sat on.

Best pretend seat – the glove box between the two front seats. Precarious and uncomfortably close to the windscreen, you will be the first to taste the tarmac if the driver brakes too sharply.

However, you are next to to the driver and will be serenaded all the way home. Plus you will be six inches taller than everyone else which normally gives people a bit of an ego boost even if they know deep down it’s just cos they’re sat on a box.

Next best pretend seat – the plastic base behind the passenger’s and driver’s seats. It’s a slippery slope you keep sliding off. You’ve given yourself a nose bleed because your knees are so far up in your face you’re blind and the driver hit a pot hole. You keep nearly getting into an intimate facial situation with the person in front of you. And the cobrador’s looking down your top. At least your ass is on something resembling a seat and not…..

On someone’s lap. If the chapa was Titanic, this seat would be Rose, pushing the good seats off the raft of esteem just so she can lie in some cold water and bitch for a few hours.

jack-rose-raft-600x290

Pretty sure there is room for two there…

No one wants to sit on someone else. But to be fair, I’d rather sit on someone else than be sat on. What if they are incontinent? Or have terrible bacterial vaginosis? Or weigh 200lbs?

Finally, the accolade for the worst seat on the chapa goes to….

The door frame, window frame and indeed the sky, which is where many people who haven’t been able to fit properly into the chapa end up travelling. By design or by mistake, the result is an undignified and premature death.

3. Know where you’re going. 

Battalions of these chapas zip from one end of the city to the other and cover an impressively long distances. It is difficult to know where they are going and, as you’re more likely to meet Donald Trump in an East-African Mosque than find a route map, you’re kind of stuffed unless you have a pretty good idea of where YOU want to go.

This might seem like strange logic, and it probably is, but then the chapa system itself is quite strange.  

However, you should know this:

Museu (Museu de Geologia) is the main chapa terminus in the East of the city. It’s smack-bang in the posh part of town and has connections to many exciting destinations:

To go North, up through Sommerschield to Coop until Praca de OMM – take a chapa to Praca das Combatantes or Laulane.

To go West take chapas from Avenida Eduardo Mondlane. Get off at Ronil if you want to go down to the Baixa in the South. Look for Costa Do Sol, this will take you down and around to Maputo shopping and then up to Costa Do Sol.

Ask a local. And remain vigilant at the window watching for the route you’re taking.

Chapa_traffic_jam_in_Maputo_(9717216968)

Hmmm… I wonder what route this is?

4. Don’t be a Moron.

Anti-Chapa Chaps will try and tell you all about how you will be assaulted if you take a chapa. This is quite frankly, utter bollocks, and unforgivable social prejudice.

A certain individual I know here said they took a chapa once and it was a terrible experience because her bag was open on her lap and someone reached in and stole her ipad.

Yep. No word of a lie.

Obviously you are not going to be this moronic. Keep your handbag/satchel/rucksack/napsack/spotted handkerchief-on-the-end-of-stick firmly shut and you should have no problems.

5. There are no bus stops.

You must develop the African sixth-sense of the minibus stop. Or just use your eyes and common sense. Where there are people waiting and chapas stopping, it’s probs safe to assume you’ve got yourself a stop.

When you wish to exit the chapa you must shout paragem. Forcefully, and multiple times, normally a little way before your stop.

5. Know who you’re dealing with.

You don’t speak to the CONDUTOR (driver). Unless he speaks to you. He is too busy swerving at break-neck speed round other traffic, vegetable carts, cyclists, small children and livestock.

You do speak to the COBRADOR (conductor… confusing innit?): he is the man you pay. He is normally a mouthy geezer, and too comfortable in the job but it’s best to stay on his good side, so don’t give him any lip.

N.B. Never ever comment on the large pink false nail studded with diamantes the cobrador is wearing on his hand. Never ever.

6. Payment

May be offered any time, but normally just before the stop, when you say ‘Paragem’, is best so as to avoid sticky situations when the cobrador claims you haven’t paid.

However, the cobrador will occasionally ask for everyone’s fare at once. It really depends on the guy.

Each journey is 7 meticais or £0.08….. Yeah, Transport for London: EAT YOUR HEART OUT.

Change always be given. I’ve seen people pay with 200 mz notes and receive change, but I wouldn’t risk anything bigger and it’s probably wise to ask before.

7. Etiquette.

The only way the experience of travel in close proximity to a stranger’s genitals can be made any worse is by talking to them or being talked to.

This is probably why, apart from the Cobrador and Driver’s kareoke competition, chapa journeys are fairly silent affairs.

Don’t worry about saying ‘good morning’ or anything either. It will just draw attention, bring us on to number 8……..

8. You will get hassle if you are A.) A girl. B.) White

I have never had anything but pleasant exchanges with other passengers. But, brace yourselves for some unwanted attention from the cobrador. They are ego-maniacs, tiny dictators in their kingdom of the atomic tin-can.

What starts with “Eu Gosto de Ti.” (I like you) – normally  delivered with a leer, will evolve into endless pestering to get your number or indeed, to get you to come over and hang out at his place.

It is hard to just ignore such comments when said person is leering only inches from your face, but it is probably the best policy. I find saying ‘Mmmmmm’ with raised eyebrows and studying your fingernails intently also works. Exchange exasperated looks with the girl next to you. If worse comes to the worse, tell the offender you are pregnant, which will have the desired effect of reducing your sex appeal to that of a bent spoon. (A hint of annoyance is usually good but don’t go over board.)

9. Enjoy people watching and being the only non-African on the bus

In two months, I have only seen one other non-African on a chapa and she was a tiny, wizened old lady. Kudos to her.

chapa 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Solitude and Elephant Fetuses

Winter has arrived in Maputo.

It sneaked in whilst nobody was looking and took everyone by surprise. Suddenly, it is too cold to go out in the evening without an extra layer or two (although twerking can remedy this…), people no longer sweat it out in jeans at midday, and a duvet is surprisingly welcome at night when the temperature drops.

Unfortunately, this weekend was kicked off by heavy rain and a cold breeze which didn’t shift until late on Saturday afternoon. Maputo doesn’t like the cold but it really hates rain. The streets lie empty of people but for the most persistent hawkers, who stand around morosely dressed only in shorts and flipflops with plastic bags tied to their head.

Considering the precarious living conditions of the vast majority of people in Maputo, it is easy to see why rain dampens the spirits of the usually buoyant Mozambicans. Rain means leaks in corrugated iron roofs, it means damp clothes, damp blankets, endlessly cold, wet feet as you trudge through the rain in flip flops and sandals. It means colds and the flu. It means worrying about wheezing grandparents and feverish children, and all the medical bills you can’t pay. Rain is as bad for business as it is bad for the health.

Accordingly, the city has been peculiarly quiet this weekend. Bars and restaurants stood empty and parties drew a small, albeit dedicated crowd.

The weather seemed to coincide with a lull of my own.

After the whirl-wind of the first month, what was novel is becoming normal, and I find myself craving some structure and routine and the regular company of friends. I want to feel myself settling in now that the ‘honey-moon’ phase is coming to an end.

And so, sick of being confined to the flat on my own, I went to the natural history museum on Saturday afternoon.

The building is manueline in style, resembling a large, frilly wedding cake – I’ve never understood why the other name for manueline is Portuguese-gothic (perhaps some architecture nerds out there could enlighten me?) and houses the only collection of elephant fetuses in the world.

What better way is there to spend a lonely Saturday afternoon staring at the preserved remains of elephant abortions?

Starting out as a blob the same size as walnut, the elephant gestates for 21 months – 21 MONTHS – that is nearly two years (RESPECT), before it is born at the size at which it is able to walk behind its parents and do all those adorable things which add at least 3 zeros to David Attenborough’s salary every year.

It would be more impressive if the collection was complete, but unfortunately it only contains fetuses of up to 6 months of gestation, when they are replaced by lumpy papier maché models painted with grey poster paint which rather diminishes the effect.

The exhibit is accompanied by a vitriolic text about the origins of the fetuses aka Elephant-Gate, Mozambique: the Portuguese colonial regime attempted to clear a large section of the country for agricultural projects which meant shooting hundreds, nay thousands of innocent, law-abiding elephants… The one good thing, the text said, which came out of this elephantine massacre was the preservation of the fetuses, plucked from the still warm wombs of the mother animals. And to top it all off, those bloody incompetent Portuguese didn’t even manage to carry out the agricultural projects they had planned to.  Goddamn colonialists.

The museum is also home to the best collection of SH** taxidermy I have ever seen.

Highlights include:

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This…. lioness?

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This cheetah who still looks pretty concerned about David Cameron and Pig Gate… Don’t worry cheetah, you’re safe here.

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And this leopard who looks like he could really do with introducing some prunes to his diet.

Needless to say, any year-abroad blues quickly evaporated, the moral of the story being if you feel down on your year abroad, go and laugh at some dead animals.

 

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A Weekend in Paradise

It was with not undue excitement that I pulled myself out of bed at the ungodly hour of 3am on Thursday. The promise of five days in paradise was a pretty tantalizing one and even the pointless two hours spent in the bus station sitting on the chapa until it had filled up, failed to dampen my spirits. It was a pleasant enough wait watching hawkers selling everything from loo-roll to boiled eggs file on and off the bus, as chickens wove in and out between the legs of women who wandered about with their heads piled high with bundles and baskets. 

Finally, at 7 am, once the bus could not take another passenger (some were sitting on laps!), and the mountain of belongings and presents being taken back to the village were securely lashed to the trailer we towed behind us, we set off, leaving Maputo behind in a hot chaos of traffic and rubbish.

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Até já Maputo!

The journey was long and uncomfortable (I had a rather large lady sitting next to me who I  watched systematically ring every contact in her phone book until she finally fell asleep at around 11 am), but it was also completely  enchanting.

The bush stretched out of either side of us for as far as the eye could see, a tangle of green vegetation punctuated by Indian almond, acacia and coconut palms and the occasional flash of electric blue and pink as Bee Eaters flew from their perch on the telegraph wire.

This huge expanse of country was uncultivated apart from the odd, road-side machamba which blended so well into the surroundings, it  would have been easy to miss had not been for the women stooped over in their capulanas, weeding and picking out what was ready to be eaten.

Orange dirt tracks snaked away from the motorway towards clusters of houses which were just distinguishable through the trees. Some were round with daub walls and neatly thatched cane roofs, others were square and made entirely from woven palm fronds. I was reminded of the rush baskets my mum made when I was a child, and wondered if these beautiful houses smelled as good as they had.

The motorway was positively thronging with the people the whole way to Tofo: teenagers walking to and from school, men on bicycles, ladies with containers full of water on their heads, children playing with improvised toys. Every now and then we’d come to larger village and the road would be lined on both sides by stalls selling food, drink and just about anything else you could imagine. Hawkers would tap on the windows – “Mae! Mae!” (‘Mummy’ is the respectfully affectionate form of address reserved for females in Mozambique) and offer up tubs of cold drinks which were gratefully received by all on-board. We stopped frequently at the end of the aforementioned dirt tracks to let passengers carrying sacks of potatoes and rice off and watched as they were greeted by various family members.

As we trundled along all 500 km of the highway, I couldn’t help but feel like another faceless participant in that timeless African tradition of road-side, trading communities. I wondered if the landscape was all that different from the landscape the Europeans had encountered when they first arrived here. I imagined the advance of the Portuguese into the Zambezi heartlands, how they too had followed paths worn deep by thousands of years of traffic along the East African coast to the interior, how they must have felt bewildered as they were confronted by the weight of history and how clumsily they tried to subjugate it.

We arrived in Inhambane, a sleepy, clean suburban town perched on an estuary, close to Praia Tofo at about 3.30 pm and by 4.00 pm we had made it to Tofo.

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First sight of Paradise, marred by the thumb placed over the camera….

Tofo is a bit of an unreal place. The Bradt guide describes it as probably the most developed tourist spot in all of Mozambique which says a lot about how untouched Mozambique still is: Tofo is nothing more than a huge beach lined with unobtrusive thatched lodges with a small conglomeration of houses, restaurants, bars and cafes at one end which is known as the village. I described it as ‘Polana-on-Sea’ which is an opinion permanent residents of Tofo (waifs and strays from from all over the world) would be keen to shoot down, but one which I stand by, as there is something undeniably chi-chi about Tofo and the masses of well-heeled weekenders from Maputo who come seeking parties and down-time.

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View from the hostel. Look at that sea!

In fact, now I think of it, Bob Dylan almost certainly DID come here.

And when it’s time for leaving Mozambique (ahem – Tofo)
To say goodbye to sand and sea
You turn around to take a final peek
And you see why it’s so unique to be
Among the lovely people living free
Upon the beach of sunny Mozambique (Tofo….)

However, right behind all of these lodges and the semi-urban development of the village are REAL villages. Groupings of beautiful wickerwork houses in the coconut grove, perhaps surrounded by a fence made of branches and bits of rubbish gleaned from the beach, marking the boundaries of the family compound. Groups of children stand around playing and chewing at lengths of sugar cane, whilst mothers tend the machamba or plait their daughters’ hair or stir a pot sitting on an open fire. Chickens meander about as tethered goats chew on whatever weeds they can find.

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Coconut grove at sunset.

It was extraordinarily tranquil.

The following three days were spent in a haze of sunshine. Reading, sleeping, eating, lying on the beach and of course, there were a few parties too.

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Riding on the beach with Rui, my guide.

The most exciting moment came when I was stung by a bee and when a lizard fell out of the thatched roof of my cabin in the hostel onto my head. I also went for a spectacular and rather fast ride along the beach and through the coconut groves.

There was a bit of ‘culture’ too, of the most macabre kind: a dog walk with friends along Tofinho lead us to the Barraco do Assassinatos, a cave in the black, coral cliff where before drowning them, the Portuguese secret police gave suspected members of FRELIMO and dissidents slow and agonizing deaths by tying them to the walls of the cave, lacerating their bodies on the sharp rocks and allowing the fish to eat them alive. The monument commemorating the spot is a stout granite obelisk, unadorned but for a single arm raised in a fist protruding from the top. It gave me goose bumps.

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Suitably gloomy looking Barraco dos Assassinatos.

I also met some interesting people including an American girl who had just finished her peacecorps contract in Malawi. She was from a farming family in Montana and had been living in a village, 8 hours drive from the capital for two years. She had had no electricity or running water, and had got up with the sun and had gone to bed at night fall. She had had internet access only 3 times a week and was allowed a short holiday once a quarter. She spoke the language of the village people fluently, she participated in religious and other ceremonies, she had learned how to make their tools and how to use them, whilst also suggesting her own improvements. It sounded like the most extraordinary experience: to get anything done – projects educating the villagers about HIV, safe sex, and agricultural and water projects, she had to go and bribe the chief with the chickens she had carefully reared herself. She was even invited once to the villager’s version of a Hen party at which, she said bluntly, the women teach the bride to have sex!

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Did Turner ever come to Tofo? He should have!

I also met a German doctor who had been working for MSF in the Central African Republic and who had been living in the bush in very similar conditions to the American, apart from the fact she was also in the middle of a conflict zone.

She said that on her very first evening, mere hours after she had landed, there had been an outbreak of fighting and she had been forced to evacuate. The first week of her new job in the hospital was spent treating gun shot wounds and other severe trauma cases as gun fire and mortars exploded around the hospital. She said she spent most of her time running between the operating table and the corridor (the safe zone) when the sound of shooting came too close.

I asked her how she coped. She said calmly that she tried to sleep as much as possible. Although she did admit it was tricky at times to get things done as her French wasn’t very good!

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Since coming to Mozambique, I have met several aid workers (including my flatmate, Carmen who was also with MSF) and I never cease to be astonished by their stories of the things they have experienced and achieved.

The German doctor said she had chosen to quit medicine in Germany and go to the C.A.R because of a profound disillusionment with Europe and the pampered, stagnant first world lives we lead. Europe may be rich, but it is poor in spirit. That was something that really with resonated me. And I couldn’t help but agree with the American girl when she said she thought Peace Corps should be compulsory for everyone living in the States. “Our lives are too comfortable. We take everything for granted.”

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Tachau, Tofo! It’s been real!

Anyway, all in all it was a really pleasant weekend of living vicariously through the stories of extraordinary people in a beautiful place. I was pleased to have made the journey on my own too. It’s not treating gun shot wounds in the Central African Republic, but I guess it was a step for me, even if it was still firmly on the beaten track.

 

“In Maputo You Enjoy The View”

Lost, not yet found: Three Weeks of a hazy nature. Notable characteristics: drenched in sunshine, possibly drunk. They meander about beatifically but are also capable of vanishing in a blink of an eye if not watched closely. If anyone out there knows of or has seen Three Weeks matching this description, I would be delighted if you could return them to me, intact.

Gosh. How quickly the time seems to fly. I hardly believe I’ve been in Maputo for nearly a month. It feels like I arrived yesterday…. or months ago, at the same time.

So I thought it was about time for some reflections. I had dinner with some Mozambican friends of my Portuguese flatmate, Carmen, last night. And they asked me what my expectations had been of the place before I arrived.

I was really honest with them. If there is one thing in particular that has surprised me about Maputo, it is how sleepy a city it is. And I’m not just talking relatively to other capitals in this part of the world. It just oozes leisure….

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…almost as much as this professional Leisure Hound.

People stroll in Maputo. There is no sense of hurry or tension or fear which keeps people off the streets in other capital cities in this part of the world. It is, despite or perhaps because of its abundant nightlife, decidedly tranquil.

It sounds absurd but sometimes, occasionally, whilst strolling round my neighbourhood in the late afternoon sunshine, I sometimes feel like I might be in a Disney Movie.

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Me in Maputo. (Artists Impression)

Allow me to explain:

Sunshine – CHECK!

Birdsong – CHECK!

Massive flappy butterflies – CHECK!

Bougainvillea flowers drifting artfully to the ground – CHECK!

I jest, of course. I don’t know how many Disney movies were also scattered with rubbish, intense poverty, flagrant corruption, and a profound sense of injustice. Because they are also all things which characterize this city.

However, to get back to my original point…

Maputo is, despite the aforementioned problems (and more), a highly agreeable city, not to mention being surprisingly attractive with a noticeably laid-back vibe.

The Mozambicans agreed wholeheartedly with this observation.

“In Maputo, you enjoy the view. Fique a vontade. (Feel free/ Make yourself at home).”

Indeed, I’ve certainly never been to any other capital city where you can actually see THE STARS at night (this is thanks to the lack of street lighting). That was one revelation.

Another revelation was waking up at five in the morning to hear a cockerel crowing. I live downtown for God’s sake. I bloody LOVE this place. (For those of you who don’t know I have a thing about chickens… please, don’t ask.)

So to conclude this rambling, highly questionable and completely romanticized post, I should like to encourage ANYONE, and absolutely, EVERYONE who is considering visiting Maputo be it for holidays or to study abroad, to just do it. It’s a pretty cool town.

A Trip To Macaneta Beach

One of the first things someone said to me upon my arrival in Maputo was:

“Maputo’s nice but you absolutely HAVE to get out whenever you can.”

Perhaps not the most encouraging advice. But, it’s absolutely spot on when one considers how utterly estranged Maputo is to the rest of the country.

It would be fair to describe Mozambique as a funnel, and not just because of the shape of the country on the map. In Moz, money has always flowed South, to South Africa and to Maputo, which in many ways resembles an enclave of Mozambique’s prosperous, southern neighbour.

‘Getting out of Maputo’ is therefore absolutely obligatory if one wants to gain any insight or understanding of how the other 99.9% of the country lives.

Macaneta is perhaps the closest one can be to Maputo whilst still ‘getting out’. We drove for a mere 20 minutes out of Maputo as the sun set and passed groups of school children and women crossing the central reservation on their ways home to the small villages which lined the motorway.

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A sight for sore eyes.

Despite Macaneta’s proximity to Maputo, it still feels charmingly isolated from the capital thanks to the short river crossing you have to make in order to access the village. (A bridge is being built as I write which will no doubt completely change the character of the place.) There is a long way round but for convenience and safety’s sake we opted for the boat.

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The boat was really more of a glorified metal raft onto which 5 or 6 cars and 50 people squeezed themselves. We chugged across watching the bats swooping about in the half-light. The tide had risen by the time we reached the opposite bank and we had to take off our shoes and wade to dry land which caused much hilarity amongst the passengers.

As we waited for the cars to disembark, a woman dressed in a capulana with a baby on her back in a sling asked if I would sell her my hair. (This has become pretty commonplace for me: so far 4 women on separate occasions have asked to buy my hair, and even more have been known to absentmindedly grab it and play with it… All the manhandling makes me feel a bit like a new puppy at Christmas: “It’s so soooft!!”)

She then hit me with a stonker of a question:

“Do you want to be black?”

That question was so simple and yet so powerful and of course my natural reaction was to say, “Well, why not…?”. But then I was hit by a sense of my own hypocrisy. Institutional racism, lack of opportunities, prejudice: these are all issues which cause great suffering for people of colour in British society. I guess it’s easy for someone to say they would prefer to change the colour of their skin when they haven’t experienced any of these things.

Moreover, her question laid bare a tragic reality: by saying that she hated her hair and wanted to be white she demonstrated how even here, white ideals of beauty of imported from abroad and imposed upon black women. And I was suddenly hit by a sense of just how profoundly divided and unjust our world is.

And this whole encounter was made more surreal by the setting: standing in the shallows of a river, in the dark, watching 4x4s struggle down the very steep ferry ramp.

I’m very aware of what a sensitive issue this is so I hope you forgive the clumsiness of my responses to it. It had a pretty big impact on me at the time and I guess I’m still trying to work out what I think.

ON WITH THE JOURNEY…..

There followed a very bouncy  15 minutes on a dust road interrupted by  a herd of beautiful Mozambican cows chilling out on the road.

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Coos on the road!

We then had a very chilled out two days in deserted idyll, the most exciting moment being the discovery of a poisonous frog on the back of a garden chair and a sighting of a yellow sac spider in our kitchen….! If you don’t know what a Y.S.S. is, it actually features on GoAfrica’s list of Africa’s most dangerous and scary spiders……….

Yay.

http://goafrica.about.com/od/africanwildlife/tp/Africas-Scariest-Spiders.htm

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Sapo venenoso!

I had been unnecessarily nervous before departure.

The thought of leaving Maputo for the first time and being in a more remote area was exciting but also slightly intimidating, but Macaneta was as peaceful a place as one could imagine, comprising a sleepy village of small, single-storied houses made of breeze blocks with corrugated iron roofs where old men sat around in chairs watched the comings and goings of chickens, goats, and pigs, and children playing toys made from bits of rubbish and women carrying beautiful rush baskets on their heads.

And, as Ika explained, “No one would break into the house because everyone knows it is Miguel’s (the caretaker’s) house which he looks after.”

The village is positioned in a system of dunes next to a marsh through which the road from the ferry runs. We drove past bundles of rushes stacked up to dry and hundreds of black crabs sitting at the side of the road. We even saw a MONKEY in the dunes on the way back from the beach!

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Spot the tiny, leaping monkey!

On our way back to Maputo, waiting for the ferry, a guy came over to the car and began talking to us.

He then interrupted the conversation and said, referring to the rest of the Mozambicans waiting for the ferry, “They’re afraid to talk to you because you’re white.”

And so the race question loomed again and cast a sad shadow over the end of what was otherwise a blissful weekend.

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Fisherman pulling in the day’s catch. What looked like half the village came through the dunes to watch them. Taken at a distance because people here believe that cameras steal part of your soul.

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