Thursday, August 23, 2007

Zalala Beach

Sunday may have been our nicest day in Mozambique so far. Olivia had gone to Malawi with the rest of our group to secure residence visas (you can only do it outside the country), so class was off and we had the day to ourselves. Our new best friend Aguinaldo knew this and, being the great guy that he is, and not wanting us to be lonely, decided it would be a good day to show us the beach.

We set out around 11 a.m. Aguinaldo came to pick us up in his Land Rover with two adorable boys, one of which was his son. Lara rode up front with Aguinaldo and his son, and I took the back with the other little guy.

Aguinaldo’s Land Rover is old, and wasn’t built with comfort in mind. It’s the type of vehicle that you would stereotypically think of as being in Africa. It’s almost as long as a Suburban, but with a much higher ceiling. In the back (where I was riding), instead of seats like you would normally expect, there were bare sheet-metal bleachers jutting straight out from the side of the vehicle like a bench in a cave. Aguinaldo had mercifully put a couple loose car seat bottoms in the back for us to sit on, but the chair was so high that I couldn’t sit up strait. Zalala beach is 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) north of Quelimane.

Remember the quality of the roads in Mozambique? Well, those were in the cities, and to get to the beach we had to head through the country. It was probably karma circling back around for my complaining about the roads in the first place. Potholes on country roads in Mozambique span the single-car width of the road. We drove fast, and we kept swerving off to the shoulder to avoid the largest craters. On more than one occasion my head hit the ceiling. The young boy riding in the back with me found this hysterical. Really, so did I.

On the way out to the beach we passed by Aguinaldo’s neighborhood. In his culture, it is customary to have celebrations at the 3-month, 6-month, 1-year, and 2-year anniversaries of relatives’ death. Sunday happened to be the 2-year anniversary of his grandfather’s passing, and everyone he knew was around his neighborhood. Luckily, he stopped to introduce us.

His neighborhood was spectacular. We turned right off the paved road and immediately turned left down a path through the trees. Suddenly mud huts with thatched roofs sprang up to our left and right. They were built close together, only a couple feet apart, and varying distances from the main drag we were on. Nowhere was the road more than two cars wide, most of it was only wide enough for our Land Rover.

We drove a bit more than a quarter mile and came to a cul-de-sac with maybe a hundred people gathered. Here Aguinaldo stopped and we all got out. Women sitting on blankets lined the hut to our right. They were talking to the women lining the adjacent hut. They looked at Lara and I, but weren’t impolite and didn’t end their conversation until Aguinaldo started to introduce us.

They wore the most wonderful outfits. Three bright and beautiful pieces of fabric were wrapped around them: one around the waist, one made up a blouse, and another made a head wrap. I didn’t take my camera to the beach, but I’ll try to get a picture soon.

First we met an aunt and his grandmother, then a couple cousins and nieces. We rounded the corner between the two groups into a surprisingly more open area. Small cooking fires smoked with the greatest and most mysterious smells rising from the kettles.

Behind the first hut we met another of Aguinaldo’s aunts. In Mozambique when a man meets a new woman (or when two women meet) you do that very-European kiss-kiss thing (one small peck on each cheek). After finishing this custom with his aunt, she turned to him and said something that made him double over in laughter. I didn’t catch it, but just grinned along. As we walked away, he told me, “She said that you have very big legs.” Lara laughed aloud and concurred with the aunt. My calves are a multicultural conversation piece.

Afterwards we met a few more of his family members, including his lovely wife, and saw a bit more of his community. In the back was a large group of people, maybe 60 or 70, all huddled together under a large covering. Aguinaldo said they were about to start dancing, but we left before they began.

Back on the gnarly road, we opened the box of cookies we bought in town and gave one each to of the boys. Two instant best friends and, as it turns out, pretty good Portuguese instructors.

The drive to Zalala beach was beautiful. We passed acre after acre of coconut farm on our way, as well as plain old jungle, and road side markets selling Roma-sized tomatoes and really bumpy oranges. The road, Aguinaldo had told us, had been built in the 1960’s and not repaired since.

The only access to the beach is this single one-lane road, but lots of people go to the beach everyday. Very few people have cars, so the most popular way to get to the beach is by bus. However, when I say “bus”, I don’t mean bus. Imagine a pick up truck somewhere between an S-10 and an F-250. Now raise it up about a foot off the ground, and put 30 (I’m not exaggerating) people in the back. Finally, send it down a ludicrously bumpy road going around 40 miles an hour. This is the Mozambican concept known as “machibombo” (ma-shee-BOOM-boo).

We arrived at the beach after a half-hour on the road. We drove through a small collection of resort houses and hotels and about 50 yards of jungle to get to Zalala.

It was enormous! The sand started 300 yards before the ocean, and the beach stretched to the left and right as far as you could see. Kids played volleyball and soccer, and folks drove their bikes and motorcycles right up to the shore. We parked our Land Rover on a dune, and headed down.

Remember, it’s winter in Mozambique. Aguinaldo was in a t-shirt and shorts, and the ocean breeze was freezing him to death. We gave him one of our towels to wrap up in, and he was wide-eyed as we stripped down to our bathing suits and ran in. The water was sandy brown and, we were thankful to discover, warmer than the air outside. Being only a few kilometers north of the outlet to the Bons Sinais river in Quelimane, there is a tremendously strong current running north as soon as you are any distance out in the water. I could swim free-style against it at a leisurely pace and hold still.

Turns out, our throwing a book and a towel into a plastic bag before we left was way overpacking. Most people brought no towels or food to the beach. They just stripped down to undies and ran in, then air dried when they came out

We swam for a bit more, then we came back in and made a sandcastle with the boys as Aguinaldo took a much-earned nap. After ceremoniously destroying our castle, we played a little tag and soccer with a emptied coconut. Aguinaldo soon woke up and we all decided we were ready to head back.

Right outside the beach we stopped for what Lara and I thought was going to be a light snack. However, Aguinaldo wanted to sit down and eat, and we followed his lead. Aguinaldo ordered the biggest fish I’ve ever seen on one plate in my entire life. Lara and I got a dozen grilled shrimp with fries, and Aguinaldo and the boys shared the fish. As we dined on the porch we watched young men bring in the next patron’s meal from the sea.

I’ve never seen anyone eat a fish like Aguinaldo. It was about two and a half feet long and cut into steaks that you could scoop up with your fork. After those were gone, he picked up the head and dissected it, finding every morsel of meat available. No shred of fish was spared from his deft lips and fingers. When the feast was done he sent his apologies to the chef. “Tell him that I am sorry that I did not leave any fish for him!”

Satisfied and sleepy, we headed back home. As we passed by Aguinaldo’s neighborhood on the way back to our hotel he spotted his wife with his twin daughters who we hadn’t met yet. These two girls are the most precious children we’ve seen in Mozambique, and Aguinaldo is a rightfully proud father.

Next time we go, we’ll get pictures.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Welcome to Quelimane!

The first thing to report is that our current hotel is devoid of internet access. No e-mail, no banking, and certainly no blogging. Hence the shameful lapse between the initial entry and this, the second.

We are now in Quelimane, our final destination. Quelimane is a large city (pop. 200,000) in the very center of the coast. It is the capital of Zambezia province and a shipping hub for much of central Mozambique. It’s southern border is a spectacular marginal on the river Bons Sinais (Good Signs). It’s as wide as the Mississippi, and it lets out into the Indian Ocean only a few kilometers upriver.

Our first night we stayed at the Flamingo Hotel near the downtown area. It is a very nice hotel by Mozambican standards, but its amenities are reflected in the price. We will be staying in temporary housing until September 7, and our budget (as well as our companions budgets) dictated lower priced housing.

Our initial move was to the Hotel Rosy. The Rosy is located right downtown near a very nice food store and many well stocked shops. It is exactly half as expensive as the Flamingo, and exactly half as nice.

The shutters on the windows we mended with packaging tape. The floor in the bathroom was wet upon our arrival and stayed wet for the duration. The mattress was old and worn out in the middle, so that we awoke in the middle of the night to find ourselves in piled in the center not unlike a Gordita. We stayed four nights, and the stain that was on the sheet when we arrived was there when we left.

The most interesting thing about nighttime at the Rosy is the changing fauna. The first night it was mosquitoes. Visible by day and audible by night, they are much smaller than mosquitoes in our native Tennessee. They apparently sleep under tables, nightstands, and beds, and come out to feed at night. You know, like vampires.

The next night was flies. Plain old flies, with no apparent fear of human beings. I think they wagered with each other as to whom among them could land closest to our nostrils without being sucked in.

The last night, I detected no vermin. However, Lara woke me in the middle of the night after she heard a tiny scratching sound coming from the closet.

Needless to say, we left as soon as we could. We are now staying in the Muledo Hotel. The FGH logistics director (and our new best friend) Aguinaldo found this hotel at the end of one of the main roads in town. It’s set up apartment style with a living room immediately to the right as you walk in, three bedrooms on the right of the hall, a kitchen to the left and a bathroom at the end.

The bedrooms are furnished like American hotel rooms: large bed, armoire, nightstands, TV, small refrigerator, a desk, and a chest of drawers. The AC functions perfectly and the mattress is nice and firm. There are mosquitoes (this is Africa after all), but maybe only one or two a night.

The single drawback to the Muledo is the lack of hot water. Before coming to Africa I would have thought that a hot water heater would have been the last thing that I would have needed. However, it being winter in the southern hemisphere, the gets down near 50 degrees each night, and a cold shower at 7 in the morning is a exhilarating to say the least. Still, after the Rosy, it’s paradise.

Our days are spent in Portuguese class. After coffee at our hotel, we head to the home of the FGH Community Outreach Director, Michele. Olivia (our professora) is staying with her and she holds class there around a plastic porch table. We start around 9 a.m. and go until around 6 p.m. Lunch is generally at 12:30. We send the empregada (this word translates as maid, but that’s not quite the relationship we have with Regina) to the market in the morning, and then our professora doubles as our cook. We eat wonderfully fresh vegetable stews, pasta, coconut rice, different bean dishes, guava juice, and fresh papaya, oranges, and bananas for dessert.

So, in short, our dreams of coming back from Africa with six-pack abs are shot. There is entirely too much good food available. My personal favorite, coconut rice, I have just found out from the locals is horribly fattening. Leave it to me to latch on to the least healthy part of my diet.

We’re still having a blast. More to come shortly.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The city of Maputo

As I said before, Maputo is a fairly sleepy city. There are some modern looking places like a mall and Game, a South African K-Mart-type store. However, what you see the most of are what our friend Pamela called "commie condos." The city is really nice, but every once and a while it's like we've stepped into one of my old Russian history books.

However, the most psychologically trying part of Maputo is not the former second-worldness. It's the hawkers. Anywhere you'd want to go, the sidewalks are lined with young men selling every conceivable souvenir and tourist item. Tapestries, masks, statuettes, power adapters, sunglasses... and if you so much as glance at them they will follow you for blocks. Heaven forbid you should buy something from one of them. We stopped with one fellow for 30 seconds to buy a pair of sunglasses and wound up surrounded by a half dozen more, all talking at the same time. What's most troublesome is that they've actually got some cool things, but you can't stop to look a them without one of them talking your ear off the entire time.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

"Did you sleep well?"

"I'm surprised I'm still alive."

That's how Lara answered me after our first night sleeping in Mozambique. After 24 hours on three airplanes with 150 pounds of luggage in tow, we found ourselves on a new continent struggling to communicate in a language with which we'd only made the briefest acquaintance. Luckily, this is where we came first:

Villas das Mangas (Mango Villas) in Maputo. This is a picture of the courtyard, which all of the rooms open up to. It's right off the main street, and easily accessible to the rest of the city. It's here that we first met Troy Moon, the administrator for the district of Zambezia. He's just finished a fellowship and moved up from Tulane University in New Orleans. Also staying at the Villas das Mangas is our Portuguese instructor Olivia Manders, without whom we'd be completely lost. The day after we arrived, we had 8 (count 'em, eight) hours of Portuguese class. "Gostaria em conhecelo a capita Francesa, a pirata dos setes mares." Translation to follow.

So, as far as we can tell, Mozambican cuisine doesn't exist. It may be that we are patronizing the same restaurants as the other expatriates, but all the food seems to be tropical versions of American fare. For instance, at Mundo's I had the Hamburger Havao (hawaiian). Big grilled patty, toasted bun, sauteed onions, and a slice of pineapple. Not too bad.

Maputo is a large, sleepy city. There are tons of people, and it's right on the water. All the embassies, government buildings, and NGOs are located here, but they still can't manage to keep even the sidewalks free of potholes.

We're headed to Quelimane today, which should look very different. We'll post more pictures as we get them. Tchau!

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