In the Land of Moz

Trip Start Jun 19, 2005
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Trip End Jun 19, 2006


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Flag of Mozambique  ,
Monday, August 15, 2005

The instant we stepped off the bus in Maputo, Mozambique felt like a second home. This might be due in part to the fact that the first people we met there were neighbors from Lair Hair Hill in Portland. The fatigue from our nine-hour bus ride, along with our plans to head for the beach early the next day, evaporated as we opted instead to dance the night away at Bar Africa, a local hotspot. We bonded instantly with new-found and far flung friends, sharing travel tips and solving the world's problems to the beat of Afro-Caribbean pop. The dance floor was jam-packed with a diverse mix of locals, ex-pats, travelers, and stunning Mozambique women who treated Mike like the king he always knew himself to be.
After a couple hours sleep, we spent a lazy day walking around town, reveling in the relaxed and friendly atmosphere that makes Mozambique such a surprisingly easy place to travel, and difficult place to leave. Ready to unpack our bags for a week or so after more than a month of moving and shaking, we settled into a tiny thatched-roof hut in Tofo beach. The endless white sand and transparent turquoise waters seem impossibly untouched here. It cannot last; nothing this good stays a secret, and expansion is inevitable. But even in its currently pristine state, this paradise is not without its demons, as Mike and H would soon discover.
Emerging euphoric from our first swim in the warm, turquoise Indian Ocean, we strolled up the beach, planning to sip a cold beer and soak up some rays. A seemingly innocuous wave rolled in behind us, bathing our feet in a pool of warm water. Mike felt something brush his toes, and when he flicked his foot to free himself of the as-yet unseen entity, he sent skyward a vicious blue bottle jelly fish. As it began its descent, the vile creature extended its meter-long poison-filled tentacle, ensnaring H's feet, legs and hand. Before she knew what had hit her, Heather was writhing in pain. Unsure of what pernicious series of events might have transformed her bliss into this agony, H intuitively surmised that Mike was somehow to blame, and she unleashed an impressive series of pre-writhing expletives unsuitable for publication. Mike, seeking an opportunity to set things right, selflessly offered to urinate on H's wounds. Even in her pain, H's dignity prevented her from accepting this altruistic offer, and she suffered for hours in silent stoicism before the pain finally subsided.
What comes around goes around. H once again got the last laugh when two days later, the blue bottle's brother found revenge by affixing itself to the only skin not protected by Mike's wetsuit, searing his wrist and leaving him to bob pathetically in the surf, sealed off from his own as well as any compassionate bystander's bladder.
When we weren't nursing our wounds with Vinegar, ibuprofen and ice cold Manicas, we were diving. After a four-day course in one of the best dive spots on the planet, H and I are now both PADI certified Open Water divers. From the moment she dawned a wetsuit, H distinguished herself as a unique student. In fact, our very British instructor invented a new hand signal in her honor- palms up at his sides, head tilted askew, Andy was able to inform Mike under water that he had no idea what H was up to. Whether she was switching buddies mid-dive, giving the unsuspecting chap the "out of air sign" and grabbing his alternate air source, or anchored to the ocean floor, tank down, flippers up, H inspired Andy to mutter to himself in a continuous mantra, (insert British accent here): "That's rather unorthodox, Heather." Unorthodox or not, Mike and H managed to graduate on the fourth day as planned and earned the right to join a group of experienced divers on a trip to Manta Reef.
At around 26 meters, this dive site contains several coral reefs teeming with fish of all sizes and colors, giant sea turtles and closer to the surface, massive whale sharks. But Manta Reef didn't get its name for nothing. Small fish here have established symbiosis with these rays, eating the bacteria from the mantas' skin as the giant winged creatures hover in circles above the reef. We descended through schools of fish until our instructor pointed a gloved hand into the distance where a huge shadow emerged, and eventually flew directly over us, close enough to touch. We spent nearly 40 minutes with the mantas, and will spare you the cliches, as no description could do the experience justice. Suffice to say that as we passed the time at our 5 meter safety stop by watching the school of 20 devil rays swim below and eventually climbed back on the boat we were all completely blown away, so that when the humpback whales that we had watched from our breakfast table each morning began to breech just a couple boat-lengths away from our Zodiac, it was almost too much to take. The mom and her calf swam with us for a while, then made room for a school of dolphins that escorted us back to shore. Wow.
After a week of diving during the day and spending the evenings with a great group of new friends under shooting-star-filled skies, we decided it was time to head north for Vilankulos.
A toothless sailor named Bob took us in his dilapidated dhow across the shallow bay to the bus stop, and though Captain Bob made the most of the breeze on the bay, we missed our bus nonetheless. One of our companions put both his mastery of Portuguese and his experience as a steel trader to work as he negotiated a minibus chapa and a bag of cashews for the ride. Nine of us eventually climbed aboard what soon became a bouncing mobile juke box, blaring African music that inspired passengers as well as passersby, children and old men with similar dental profiles as Captain Bob's to dance and wave as we bounced our way through their palm and bamboo-filled villages.
The nine of us settled in at the idyllic Zombie Cucumber guesthouse and almost immediately had the next day planned - an all day dhow ride to the Bazaruto Archipelego. Thick clouds parted gradually as we splashed through the crystal clear water to our first snorkeling spot. A group of playful dolphins stayed just out of reach as we dawned fins and masks and slid into the water to explore the shallow reefs that are home to countless fish, turtles and rare manatees (dugones). Next we landed at the base of a huge dune that emerged incongruously from the sea, and as we climbed and rolled in the sand the dhow crew cooked fresh-caught fish over coals that burned white hot in a wooden bbq pit on board our tiny vessel. As the sun began to set on the horizon, a magical day ended with a rare sighting of endangered manatees who surfaced right in front of our boat. Wow. Again.
Enchanted with this country and unwilling to let the good times end, we begrudgingly parted ways with our Dutch, Brazilian and American friends who were headed off in different directions, and with a new team of five, made plans to head further north.
It was a long and cramped 12 hour bus ride (in other words, an African bus ride) to Beira in central Mozambique, and well worth the journey. Like a time warp, it's part African bustle, part colonial relic. We keep thinking that Moz's cities must bear some resemblance to Havana, the architectural majesty of its colonial ancestry faded with years of neglect, somehow more charming, certainly more authentically African in its current state. Also authentically African, the bus rides were getting a little old, so we threw down a few million meticash for some plane tickets to Nampula, several hundred otherwise bone-jarring, pothole-riddled kilometers further north.
Sitting in the airport bar awaiting our 2pm flight, we took the sight of other passengers hurriedly walking toward the plane as a cue to make our move. Was it standard operating procedure to wave five travelers through the metal detector even as its bells rang and lights flashed? Perhaps it was the cold Manica we bought the amicable cop as we awaited our flight? Either way, we hadn't the time to find out. We made a mad dash across the steaming tarmac under the admonishing glare of the flight attendant who shut the door immediately behind us. We were airborne by 1:45, proving that the "leave when it's full" rule applies to planes as well, tough in this case "full" was refreshingly redefined as one passenger per seat. Just like that we were on our way to Nampula, where despite grave warnings from our hotelier that we had been spotted on our balcony and would be lucky to evade a bandito ambush, we made it through the night. By 6am the next day we had crammed ourselves into yet another chapa for what turned out to be a smooth ride to the magical Ilha de Mozambique.
A 3km bridge spans the shallow water between the mainland and the island, which was colonized by Portugal in the 15th century. In the ensuing centuries Muslim, Hindu and Catholic faithful erected dozens of temples and churches. More recently, during years of Mozambique's civil war, Mozambiquans fled the mainland swelling the island's population from a sustainable 7000 to an overwhelming 17,000. Today, Ilha's sandy streets are an incongruous blend of overcrowded thatched huts, crumbling European edifices and a few renovated gems. The relative obscurity of this place, combined with our traveling companion's unorthodox appearance made our group of five the center of good-natured and friendly attention wherever we wandered.
Time is different on Ilha de Mozambique. Our days blended into each other as they must for the locals, whose island habitat fails to isolate them from the poverty that plagues this country and precludes for most any education or steady employment. With no school to attend, the children play happily in the streets and spend time with their parents who trade fish for fabric, and sell small stacks of fruits and veggies they grow in tiny gardens hidden from our view. After three days of warm hospitality in the home/guest house of a local family we headed back to Nampula in a record-breakingly full chapa to take a stab at buying train tickets westward, toward the Malawi border. Harder than it sounds, as these tickets are apparently only available between 2-3pm on Mondays, and the ramshackle station seems devoid of a ticket office of any kind. We arrived to find a collection of neatly placed rocks that we surmised the locals had employed to hold their place in their version of a line while they waited in the shade in front of an unmarked blue metal grate. When in Rome and whatnot, we made our on pile of rocks and braced ourselves for the madness to come. And come it did, in the form of a bum-rush, which we joined somewhere toward the middle of the throng. Instantly a man waved to us and indicated we should come to the front, which we refused to do at first - we would happily wait in line with everyone else. Until we realized that the rest of the line was awaiting the sale of 3rd class tickets that would afford them an opportunity to spend 12 hours tomorrow in the very close company of goats, chickens and LOTS of each other. Second class has its privileges!
With a little luck we should be in Malawi by mid-week, where we plan to do some hiking and hanging out around one of the largest lakes in the world (we actually don't have any idea where it stands in the big lake ranks, but Lake Malawi looks huge on the map). Another Malawi bonus: Mike can finally stop pretending he speaks a word of Portuguese, and H can start working on her English.
We have come to relish the adrenaline-fed anticipation of venturing into a new country, and while we have extended our time here well beyond our initial itinerary, it will nonetheless be hard to say goodbye to Mozambique. We've come to love the people, the beautiful landscape, and the sense of discovery and accomplishment that we derive from travel in such a relatively untainted region. Needless to say, there will be many more adventures to come. Stay tuned...
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