Thursday, November 15, 2007

My First Trip North, Pt. 1

Friday afternoon Lara was at a training seminar in Inhassunge while I was at the office banging away on my computer. Just after lunch Aguinaldo, sort of half-joking, invited me to go on a trip he was taking this weekend. He needed to go to Mocuba, Mogulama, Alto Molócue, and Íle (almost all of the outlying areas FGH serves). He was to leave at 6:00 a.m. Saturday morning and would return sometime Sunday afternoon.

At first I balked. It was short notice, and we had plans with a friend of ours Saturday night that I was really looking forward to, and plus I wasn’t too sure about leaving Lara in Quelimane by herself for the first time. I basically told him I’d have to think about it and talk to him later. He kind of laughed at me and said ok, sensing that I needed to ask the wife first.

Lara arrived back shortly thereafter and I told her what he’d asked me. She told me I had to go. I may or may not have that many chances to see the district sites, and she thought I should take every opportunity I could. So, next time I saw Aguinaldo I told him to pick me up Saturday morning.

That evening Lara and I went to a dinner hosted by our friends Matthew and Lorraine. He’s originally from Zimbabwe and she’s South African. They’d introduced us to “braai” a few weeks back, and we were totally hooked. Therefore, even though I knew good and well that I had to get up before 5 a.m. the next morning, we went. Arriving back home a little before midnight, I tiredly filled a bag with clothes, toiletries, a towel and sheets and crawled into bed.

4:45 came quick. We’d forgotten to plug in the hot water heater the night before, so I had an invigorating shower and made a French press full of coffee to get myself going. The car wound up being late, so I had time to check my e-mail and read a bit before they came. My eyelids were still heavy, but the coffee was kicking in and I fought to stay awake.

We leave our side door open with the screen door closed to get a little air circulation. Around 6:30 Aguinaldo popped his head around the wall and gave me a startling “ok!” Aguinaldo’s accent is awesome. The way he says “ok,” he sounds like a Greek who’s just set the cheese afire: “Opa!”

“Are you ready to go?” he asked. I said I was. Lara had made it up by this time, and while I carried my bags to the car, Aguinaldo was busy assuring her that he would bring me back in one piece: “You don't have to worry! I will bring him back in one piece.”

Aguinaldo treats me like I’m his little brother. He shakes hands with everybody else, but he high-fives me. Also, he kids me more that he does anybody. It’s been a great incentive for me to learn more slangy Portuguese so I can kid him back.

This trip was all about work he had to do: buildings that were being built, delivering salaries, computer outages, etc. So I packed like I’d have a lot of downtime: my computer, two books, my journal. Aguinaldo and Nazaré (the driver) didn’t say much, but they did look at my two bags with a little exasperation. They had brought one bag each, the combined volume probably not equaling one of mine.

So we started out on the bumpy roads of Quelimane with Aguinaldo riding shotgun and Nazaré driving. I had the back seat of our extended cab all to myself. It’s obvious that Aguinaldo and Nazaré enjoy each others' company. They were talking fast in Portuguese nonstop for most of the trip. I caught a lot of it, but they’d throw in what I could only imagine was Zambezian slang and I’d get lost. Every once in a while, after something particularly hysterical, Aguinaldo would turn around to me and explain the joke in English.

After about an hour we came to Namacurra. I’d visited here last week to work with one of our data managers. We stopped right at the square to buy snacks.

The way you buy snacks in Mozambique is to stop your car anywhere on the road and twenty roadside vendors run up to you and start hassling you, shoving peanuts, cashews, mangos, bananas, chickens, and anything else you can think of in your window. To date I’d only experienced this with other Americans in the car, and we usually bought something just to get rid of them. Aguinaldo takes a different approach.

We stop the car, he rolls down the window, and immediately a young fellow thrusts an entire basket of peanuts at him.

“What’s this?” he asks in Portuguese.

“Peanuts,” the guy says.

“How much?" inquires Aguinaldo as he takes a handful and tosses them in his mouth.

“Ten (meticais).”

“Ten?!” Aguinaldo protests, chewed up peanut flying from his mouth. He takes another handful.

“Ten,” confirms the vendor.

“Five,” Aguinaldo replies firmly. This time a bit of peanut manages to land on the forehead of the poor peanut hawker.

Meanwhile, Nazaré is talking with a couple I'd never met, and before you know it two people are piling into the back of the car. Until now I'd had the back all to myself, and I was a little less than excited about more passengers. It turns out she was a nurse that works for us, and she and her husband needed a ride to Mocuba.

As we all got packed in, Aguinaldo told the pitiful salesman that he had in fact changed his mind and no longer wanted any peanuts. Nazaré hit the gas, and we were off.

Honestly, the weakest part of my Portuguese is my listening. I can write and talk well enough, but I do have trouble understanding others (Lara would argue that I have the same problem with English). So now I was the lone americano in the car with four Mozambicans at full speed. It was dizzying trying to keep up. Our new passengers would try to include me, but seemed unwilling to slow down, so they left me in the dust. I held my head up and smiled along periodically when there was a big laugh. They used words in ways that had never made it into any of my Pork textbooks. I was tired, so I dozed.

We arrived in Mocuba at about 9 a.m. and we stepped out into the pressure cooker. There's a wonderful little food stand on the main street, but it's set down in a little hollow, so it felt like a hot tub in July. Stacey, one of the Americans that works for us, had already arrived. She was spending her day looking for a house there for her and her two daughters. Aguinaldo was going to help with the negotiations.

Stacey had been running into trouble. A Portuguese company had brought dozens of workers with them to help build a bypass from Quelimane to Mocuba, and they had been willing to pay any price asked for houses there. She had seen a few, but the fellow that owned her favorite was asking $1900 US for a three bedroom house with a scrap of a yard. As you would expect, she refused on principle and hit the streets again.

We headed to a nice, poured-cement (its the only way to beat the heat) house off the main road. There was a gate and a wall (a must have), with young chickens already running around the yard. There were guys in the back mixing more cement and cutting boards when we arrived.

I tooled around outside while Stacey and Aguinaldo went in to talk with the guy. Lourenço, the driver that brought Stacey, hung outside with me. Further inspection found that the house was really still being built, and this guy wanted to get somebody in it before it was done. Stacey said no thanks. We traded Stacey and Lourenço back in for the couple from Namacurra and got out.

On the way out of town we dropped the couple off at some hotel. A river makes the northern border of Mocuba. It's wide and low, and every time I've been there hundreds of half-naked Mozambicans were washing their clothes and themselves. Our colleague saw a pygmy hippo on the banks of this river, but we had no such luck this time.

We crossed the river and got back out of civilization. I nestled down amongst the bags in the back and just watched unrepentant splendor of the northern Mozambique roll past. We were going up a little rise when I saw the first real mountain I've seen. They are far different from any mountains that I've ever seen. We were up on a small plateau, and everything below us looked like West Tennessee low country. But the mountains, austere and solitary, stood each by themselves like giants around a campfire.

They're epic. You can't help but imagine waves of Bantu invaders pouring down them (though the Bantu invasion wasn't violent, I still like to think of some African chieftain leading his men in a charge down a mountain. Even if they weren't carrying anything more deadly than a goat). I don't know why I felt it so liberating, but I did. You know what you think of when you sing "from purple mountain's majesty/above the fruited plain"? That's what it felt like.

We drove up and down and up and down, the rattle of the mud-dirt road forcing me to shift constantly. Suddenly, at the top of another rise, we turned left. We'd arrived in Mogulama.

Mogulama is the first place that I've been that looks like what we all expect when we say "I'm going to live in Africa for a year." The road we were now on was lined with stalls, and the next road we turned on was full of mud brick houses leaning from where rain had started to erode them.

We drove until we came to a small clearing with a few old cement buildings and a fresh cement slab in the middle of it all. This was the hospital.

We were met by the nurse as soon as we arrived. She and Aguinaldo started talking, and that first idle moment has immediately hijacked by the vastness of where we were. I couldn't wait for some excuse to go wander around. Mogulama would come to be my favorite site we have.

Finally Aguinaldo told me he had to leave to pick up the construction folks.

"Do you care if I stay here? I'd like to have a look around."

"Ya, you can stay here," he said. They left, and I was alone in a fairly remote part of Africa by myself without a car, outside of cellphone range, and with no one who spoke English.

I told the nurse that I was going to go for a walk, and she kind of looked at me like I was crazy (it was getting near noon, and wasn't exactly cool), and went inside. I picked out a path that went downhill and around a wood into the middle of nowhere. I found this little house under a withered tree. No one was home, so I couldn't ask permission, but I snapped a shot anyway.

It was such a funny little path, but it ended quickly in a dry riverbed, so I turned around to find a new way.

This time, I went along the road. I was up on a ridge and could see down the highway for a quarter mile each way. The path was lined with mercifully shading mango trees that folks were picking as I walked past.

This path opened up into a little clearing lorded over by a large dilapidated structure. As I walked past I noticed little eyes darting out at me and turning away just as I saw them. When I stopped, uncontrollable giggles snuck out from the bush. A excited scurry later brought the mother of the Marcos' out, with nursing baby in tow.

The Marcos' were a family of at least seven (Dad was at work). When Mrs. Marcos came out children started crawling from every conceivable hiding place around their home (the dilapidated structure).

We talked a bit about Mogulama, she told me the name of the largest mountain in the distance (Hatui), and we talked about her family. Her husband was a car mechanic (which explained the worn drawing of a transmission on the wall of their home, even thought there was no way to get car anywhere near it). She introduced me to all her children, I asked her if I could take a picture of them, and then I headed back to the hospital.

Still no sign of Aguinaldo, and I was feeling bold. I took the main road leading away from the hospital and back through the market. There were lots of people there, and they were all very interested in the white man walking thought they're town. I try to just smile and nod, but sometimes people seem a little less than friendly. As quickly as I could I got off the main road.

In Mogulama, "off the main road" really means "off THE road." I stepped into a network of footpaths swirling around dozens of mudbrick houses. That's when I fell in love with Mogulama. The houses are built on a gentle slope that ends a mile away in valley. The valley is immediately interrupted by another giant mountain. The houses themselves eaach have their own personality. I know these shows how much of a geek I am, but it is exactly what you would think wandering around Kakariko village with Link (Google it if you don't know what I'm talking about).

The houses are so close, and the paths go right by front doors and windows. Mogulama proved to me that land ownership is not a human instinct but a learned behavior. Also, the houses are built around the wildest ruins left from days of Portuguese colonization. If I was here for longer than a year I'd definitely try to buy something like this and have it reinforced and renovated.


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