Now this is poverty
14.11.2008 - 18.11.2008
I wasn't expecting Mozambique to look like that.
I mean, I'd seen pictures of Africa, with its poor villages and crowds of people and the struggle for every and anything. And we'd just been through parts of South Africa where tin villages sat on dry sand and people made their living doing whatever was at hand. It was haphazard and poor and terribly simple, but it felt grounded in some culture that wasn't for us to understand, some way of life that was different and fundamentally good.
But Mozambique was chaos.
It started at the border. Three of us had our visas already, but everyone else--wisely--had waited till the border to get theirs (so much for my $80 in Puralator fees!). So we picked up a "helper" just outside the border, who was supposed to speed up the process and ensure we dotted all our I's and made quick time.
The border was a mess. There were people everywhere--standing around, trying to trade Mozambique Metacals for South African Rand, pushing and shoving and sweating and eyeing our big, red bus as Jimmy locked and left it at the gate. And in we went, to the vilest, most pathetic excuse for a customs point I'd ever seen. Lining up meant shoving to keep your place, and Neal's "Is that your hand on my butt?" was proof enough for me that we'd been right to keep our wallets on the bus (my passport and the 17 Rand needed to get in was tucked safely, if uncomfortably, in my left 36C).
The three via holders made it out, only to find the others--perplexed--standing without passports and looking a little worried. The "helper" had gone off with their papers. All of them. And he was nowhere in sight. Then his helper came, and everyone went back off to fill more papers, and we waited ages and fret with them until everyone had everything in order. Then money exchanged hands here, slipped into a pocket there, and the bus was--thankfully--off. Seems the helpers either get on and get paid or they inform the authorities that your bus needs a thorough search. Welcome to Mozambique.
The toll road was much the same. A bill exchanged hands and a request for change was met with a laugh. Cursing from the front of the bus, but who could you complain to? Everyone seemed to be on the take or in your pocket--part corruption, part Communism, part survival. But it was all rather disgusting.
And then we saw the city.
Crumbling apartment blocks. With satellite TV.
The road into Maputo was surreal. There were people everywhere, lying along the road, under trees, in garbage. Just lying there, at times with an outstretched hand, a wave, and always a look. We turned every head we went by--and we went by a whole lot. And the road-side stands were like nothing in South Africa. Here, people were selling the same things, over and over, in dirty stalls, under torn umbrellas, hawking muddy bits of scrap and stuff picked from trees. The city was somehow worse, covered in mud and deep puddles, advertising--everywhere, everywhere--two rival cell-phone companies. These people living in filth, not noticing they were living in filth, carrying cell phones and chatting on the rediculously packed busses, under tree after tree, in the middle of fields. Wherever they'd plopped themselves. Chatting and begging.
I hate to say it--it's so terrible to say it--but I thought: No amount of money from the rest of the world--no relief teams, no fundraiser, no good will or ambassador, no nothing--is going to fix this. Because this has become a way of life. And you can't fix a way of life. These small children, just learning to walk, who already know to outstretch their hands at a passing bus. This is learned poverty. This is helplessness. How could I have come to Africa and seen for myself and changed my mind?
So it was with a little self-loathing and shame that I watched our progress to Bilene, way up the coast. Who was I, 6 days into Africa, to judge what was what?
I still don't have an answer.
Nonetheless, the bus drove on and on up to Bilene and Laugna camp--our stop for the next two days. We pulled in when it was long dark, and hoisted our bags to a small hut. Being the honeymoon couple has its perks, and we enjoyed--once again--the biggest place for just the two of us. It was clean and cozy and, after a quick shower to wash off the long day, we sat down to our first real supper altogether. Priscilla cooked and we set and cleaned up, and shared stories amongst ourselves: Philip and Harry, from the north of England, now living in northern France with a place in southern Spain. Connie and Erin, mother and daughter, from California and Lake Tahoe. Steve, from London and with an accent that was near incomprehensible. Bill, from Michigan, the most well-travelled of all. Sasha, from Toronto. Jo, from Finland. Alan, from Montreal like us. Eleven people who became like family for three weeks.
Our chalet at Inhambane, where our bug spray mysteriously disappeared...
The next day it was cloudy, so we wandered off quietly to the lagoon--sitting around and playing in the sand, Neal and Steve tossing a football around. We headed back for lunch, and Neal and I went to find a new can of bug spray, since we'd unthinkingly left ours out on the porch--apparently an invitation to take and enjoy. Then someone thought to book a boat trip out beyond the lagoon, and so began the highlights that came with every day of our trip.
Watch out, Neal!
One of the boats along the lagoon.
The boat was a little wonky--sputtering across the lagoon just a few hours before sunset. We wanted to swim something a little deeper than the shallow waters around our camp, and setting down on the beach and disembarking I could suddenly hear them, up and over the other side of the sand dune: the waves. So we ran--a challenge in the sand--over to the other side, only to spot the bigest waves I'd ever seen and my very first view of the Indian Ocean.
Waves in the Indian Ocean.
I'm going down!
The waves and the rip were incredible. I couldn't get more than a few feet in before being knocked over. Neal and Alan swam out beyond the swells, but the rest of us tempted the crashing waves and ran in and out and got sand in every possible place sand could get to. It was fabulous, out on the beach in the almost-setting sun, running up and over the dunes and rinsing off in the lagoon to catch our breath. With the sun going down, it was time to head back--and although the boat started with promise, it took us half-way back before sputtering and cranking and slowing to a snail's pace in the middle of the lagoon. The driver started and restarted the engine, and the sun kept going down, while we shivered in the small section below deck until the driver produced a cell phone and, in bits of Portuguese, called for help to pick us up onshore. So the boat sputtered to the edge of the water where it crashed into the boat hoist, sending us plowing into one another. We then declined a lift from the truck driver and walked the 10 minutes to camp in the quick-fading light, passed by the truck on the way (who offered us another refused lift) and arriving in time for a quick shower and a beautifully set table with supper--a piece of meat so bit it must have been sliced clean from the middle of a bull and saran-wrapped--on the BBQ. Delicious.
Priscilla's artistic table touch!
The next day we left for Inhambane--a little further up the coast with the promise of an ocean beach. We arrived to a waiting Jeep and an open truck--our transport to the camp. Our Avis bus would have to be locked away for the next few days, as the roads were too sandy to take us in. So we unloaded our endless supplies, hopped on the back of the truck, and held on for dear life as we drove through sand pits and dunes to our new home: an open-walled chalet lined with tents.
Unpacking the bus.
Taken through the Jeep while holding on for dear life.
Our tent-chalet. Dont be fooled!
And even though the trip itinerary said camping, and we'd brought sleeping bags, there's just something about sleeping in a tent. On the ground. In 30 degree heat with no air. It would turn out to be the worst nights' sleep for everybody, with moans and groans and attempts to switch to the chalets (just an extra $12 a person--surely GAP could have given us the option?). It was like trying to sleep on sand in a sauna, and it was mutually awful.
But the beach! Oh, the beach. So blue and vast with white sand and an endless, endless coastline. We went to swim, then stopped for a drink at the bar (where a soccer-playing dog kept us company), then came back for supper, then went back in the dark--or, rather, the moonlight. So bright you could read by it. It lit up the beach and looked so beautiful it was almost unreal. Alan took a honeymoon picture of Neal and I, with the moon shining behind us and the water lit up by the sky. And we walked back, reluctantly, so happy to be there and so thankful to be seeing all of it, all of it.
The beach! Who could ask for more?
Kool and the Gang.
Neal and I woke up before 6, broken by the night's heat, and headed for a long walk on the beach, meeting Bill and Alan and a few others on the way--all too overtired and overheated to sleep. A quick breakfast and a break in the clouds, and we were off to the beach again to catch a boat ride, this time to snorkel. The ride was bumpy in a Miami-vice way--making us girls scream in glee which made the driver's head turn in panic every time. Then we stopped, and flopped off the side (I thought they only did that in movies!) into a bay where the coral reef held so much to see. Starfish and see urchins and colourful fish and coral, all kinds of things hidden in nooks and crannies. I love that scary-fascinating feeling, being so close to things that are beautiful and somehow frightening. I tugged on Neal's arms over and over to show him what new thing I'd found.
Then it was back on the boat (with a great tug from the driver) to a waiting lollipop--just what I needed after drinking a ton of salt water. Then bumpy ride back to shore, followed by lunch, swimming, a little boogie-boarding, and finally supper--this time at the beach restaurant: shrimp and baracuda with wine and bread and a slide show from the visiting scuba-dive TV crew and it was back to the tents, to another semi-sleepless night. But after a near-perfect day, it was hard to complain.
Just before Steve and Neal threw the soccer ball and chaos ensued.
The next day was a transit day--a long haul to Maputo, where we stopped in what must have once been a grand hotel but was now a crumbling, yet charming, place in need of a lot of TLC. Another supper of shrimp and fish (it's just so good), a huge lightening storm, then off to bed again.
A romantic pic of a once-romantic hotel.
Coo-coo! The mysterious bathroom window.
Then we saw Maputo. Up close. Off the bus. Walking around. With holes yay-many feet deep in the sidewalks, buildings crumbling to ruin, broken everything--a city that's been neglected for years. We stood out like sore thumbs, walking in groups of three and more, wary of everyone. I can't say I felt anything but aversion. Not even fascination. I remembered Havana, so poor and yet so charming and inviting. But this was a city after an apocalypse. Maputo may as well have been abandoned, but for the people who still lived in its ruins. And that was just it: Mozambique, so filled with people, is falling apart around them, and no one lifts a finger to fix a thing. Not one thing. Imagine having a home for 40 years and never painting, never filling a hole, never mending a fence or changing a carpet. And there you have the whole country: stopped in time for 40 some odd years since independence, with life crawling around in and around it.
I wish I could say I understood. I wish someone could change my mind.
Meet you at the corner of Lenin and 24th. Right down the street from Marx!