Saturday, September 1, 2007

Acting like a Mozambican

NEW TO MOZAMBLOG!!!!! Previously, you'd only heard from me, Kevin Harvey, about our adventures in East Africa. Beginning today, however, we'll be having a new contributor: my lovely wife Lara Bratcher. You'll be able to tell the difference because my posts will continue to be in this font, and her's will look like the one above. Enjoy!

Here’s a picture of our class. From left to right: Troy Moon, Riley Ganz, Lara, me, and Olivia Manders. Pamela Ganz is behind the camera on this one. This was our temporary classroom on the porch of the FGH office.

Our little group is starting to take on its roles. Olivia is our teacher, minister of finance, and our de facto leader. Troy, the clinical director for FGH, is beginning to take charge from Olivia’s regency as consult calls start to come in from the medical centers in the countryside. Riley, who I’ve yet to introduce and who worked at Microsoft for several years, is our minister of technology. I, obviously, am the cultural ambassador.

Every morning Riley, Pamela (Riley’s wife who is soon to be working at of one of the FGH clinic sites), Lara and I walk from our hotel near the edge of town to class nearer the office. Our road is Avenida 7 de Setembro, which means 7th of September Ave. (nobody knows why that date is important). It’s lined with vendadores (street vendors). Every day they stare at us as we walk by, and it always makes us a little nervous.

Two days ago, I decided to try to bridge the gap. They sell these little fried dough balls, a little lighter than a dinner roll but heavier than a doughnut. Sometimes they roll them in sugar, but more often not. They taste like an un-sweet funnel cake at the fair, and cost 1 metical (about 4 cents; plural meticais).

Before we go any further, a note on the currency: inflation was rampant in the nineties. It got to the point that a loaf of bread cost over 1000 meticais. So, in order to fix the problem, the formerly Communist government recalled all the money and reissued it at 1000:1.

I sauntered up to the vendors and asked them how much the dough balls cost.

“Mil meticais.” (one thousand meticais, so about $40)

“Como?” (what?)

“Mil meticais. Mil, mil.”

Now, as one of the 11 white people in this town of 200,000, I was used to getting jerked around on prices. As a rule of thumb, you can assume that they are charging you double the going rate. I turned to Pamela and Riley.

“I think he said it costs a thousand.”

“Yeah, that’s what I heard,” said Pamela. “He said a thousand.”

By now, every vendor for 20 yards (which turned out to be around 30 young men) was watching us, and most of them were helping our vendor explain to us the price. Finally, one of them held up a big silver coin. In tiny letters along the bottom, it said 1000 meticais. As it turns out, the government hadn’t done the best job recalling all the money, and some of the old coins were still in circulation.

“Oh, mil!” I said. The sound of the vendedores’ laughter reverberated off the walls of the nearby buildings. I bought five, and we were on our way to class.

The next morning I had woken late, and everyone else went to class ahead of me. Now traveling alone, and enthused by my recent success with the dough balls, I decided to take a taxi.

There are regular car taxis in Quelimane, but they are few and far between, and you have to arrange them by phone. The prevailing for-hire transportation here is bike taxi. They are nothing more than a bicycle with a standard rack on the back. The only defining aspect is the small leather pad that sits atop the rack for passengers. Bikes are constantly riding up and down main streets with at least one person straddling the rear wheel. Frequently you’ll see a mother with a child or one person on the back seat and another riding side saddle on the cross bar. The folks who’ve been here longer say they’ve seen as many as five people on one bicycle. The most surprising cargo I’ve seen was three dinner chairs. Again, I was one-upped by the veterans: they’ve seen an entire bed cruise by on a bike taxi.

The first leg of our walk to class is a small hill, followed by a flat but pot-holed stretch. I walked up to the same spot where I’d successfully negotiated breakfast the previous morning, and asked one of the bike taxis:

“Pode-se levar me?” (Can you carry me?)

“Sim, sim.” (Yes.)

By now we’d caught the attention of all the same guys from yesterday. I explained to the driver that I wasn’t going very far and I asked him how much it would cost. He told me 10 meticais. I said that I’d heard it was 5. After a little discourse, and doing his best to not let his colleagues hear, he agreed.

Here’s where the fun begins. I’m literally twice the size of the average fellow on the street, and, well, have you ever tried starting a bicycle with someone else on the back? It’s not easy.

Remember the little hill that heads up from our hotel? I climbed on the back of the bike, and all the vendedores immediately went wide-eyed.

“Ele e muito forte, nao e?” (He’s very strong, isn’t he?) I boomed to the crowd while slapping my driver on the back. Laughter erupted. More people stopped to watch.

The driver tried to pedal and started rhythmically turning the wheel left to right to keep us balanced. The crowd went “whooooooaaaa!” like any crowd does when they’re watching something enormous that’s about to topple. Instead of allowing them more entertainment at my somewhat sheepish driver’s and my expense, I stepped off the bike and the driver and I walked together to the top of the hill. I jumped on, and we started with a little help from my dangling feet, Flintstone style.

There is probably one bike repair shop, and they charge accordingly for new tires. Henceforth, every bike taxi in town is driving around on less than perfect tires, and my driver was no exception. If you’ve ever been on a bike with really old tires, you know that slipping feeling when you go around a corner. In Quelimane, cyclists have to needle a path through the potholes, and that slipping feeling is ever present. Moreover, the potholes can be a foot deep, and one single slip is potentially disastrous. Imagine me on the back of a rusty steel frame bicycle, struggling to keep balance and seeing this guy’s dry-rot front tire coming within centimeters of utter destruction.

However, we made it to class safely without incident and pride intact. I gave the fellow a few extra meticais for his struggle, and had a good laugh telling my classmates that bike taxis were in fact safe for Americans.


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