Friday, December 30, 2005


It will break my heart if I don´t get to write about today in at least some detail. I have only a few minutes on a rickety computer in Moputo, and I need to get down some first impressions. I have travelled reasonably extensively through southern Africa. I have lived, worked, or at least spent time in South Africa, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and even the Cape Verde Islands far to the northwest. So I am accustomed to the ebb and flow, the rhythms of southern Africa. I am accustomed to service that is slow to nonexistent. I am used to bizarre circumstances, the threat of violence, and the imminent onset of chaos. Hell, these are reasons why I love Africa. That said, today is pretty hard to capture.

Some snapshots:

Driving across Mpumalanga, the eastern province of South Africa (where Kruger Park is located), and seeing the veld turn into something more lush and more spectacular. And then running into the Afrikaner Charlie Manson. And then helping some poor bastard figure out his debit card, only to see him realize that he was 3 rands short of being able to get out money and thus get home. I figured that he was not the criminal type, since he did not rob me blind after I helped him at the atm, so I gave him the money for the bus he needed to get home for a few hours before he´d have to be back at work the next day.

We spent the night at the Croc Lodge in Komaniesport, on the SA-Moz border. I had Mozambiquan Giant Prawns (that´s shrimp top most of you uitlanders) that were as big as my head. They may rank as one of the top five food items I have ever eaten. I am reaching early stages of arousal just thinking about them, so let´s just move on.

Today was the border crossing. You´ve more than likely read about African border crossings. In all honesty, beyond minor hassles, a bit of power tripping, and some long lines, I had never had a really bad experience. Today came pretty close. Imagine, if you can, utter chaos; a melange of stenches, some powerful enough to bring tears to the eyes (I will never forget the old man in the blue suit jacket over the motley colored shirt as long as I live); unbelievable heat; inscrutable series of barely-defined lines; hucksters and thieves; the vague menace of violence; the real menace of violence; rude and poorly defined go-betweens who have no official capacity, but who are your best hope of getting into the country, and who take your passport, expedite you through the line, get you a visa, take fistfuls of money, get your documents back, ask for more money, and get pissed when your "Christmas Tip" is not, well, Christmassy enough (Dude, you got my last 40 Rand, seriously).

Then imagine getting across the border, hauling toward Maputo, the capital of this beautiful but tortured country (among the worst ruled during the colonial era, an assertion I do not make lightly, followed by decades of atrocious civil war -- keep in mind that throughout Mozambique going off the beaten path is highly discouraged because of the long-ago planted, nearly forgotten, but still abundant land mines, and the dismembered make their way through the streets to prove it. The Portuguese were fuckers during and after the colonial era -- the French and English at least left an infrastructure. In the most literal sense, the Portuguese hauled out of Africa and took everything that was not bolted down, left zero infrastructure, and told the Mozambiquans and Angolans to fend for themselves; no wonder these two countries have been disasters. But I digress.) In any case, we had crossed the border, and conveniently enough, the first toll, when we hit a police road block. Of course Marcus is missing one of his vital documents for the car. And so the officer (a flirtacious woman) starts talking about impounding the car. And the dance begins -- it becomes not a matter of what we will do, but how much we will pay. We are pretty cash short at this point, and in any case, are somewhat inclined to call her bluff -- "Before we pay you, let us just call the embassy." At the same time, we really want to get to Maputo, and a Mozambiquan jail does not sound like the best time. So 100 Rand later (the local currency, the Metical, numbers in the hundreds of thousands and even millions -- a million Maloti is just under 300 rand which is something over $40), we are on our way.

Maputo has seen better days. It is tight on the Indian Ocean and shows flashes of its former splendour. Once "Lourenco Marks," Maputo is a potential gem on the eastern coast of Africa. Today it is largely a seedy African capital. Many of the buildings are decrepit even if they never had a prime. Street urchins abound. But it is hard to hide what lies beneath -- a ramshackle but rambunctuous city that whispers "come hither." You half heartedly want to say no, but of course you dive in to its pleasures.

Our hotel is some distance from the beach. The city sprawls, as cities do, but the ocean provides a frame for the area, indeed for the country as a whole. The water in Maputo is a grimy brown, a mottled shore for a mottled city. We saw no one swimming in the several hours we were down at the beach. We only went in to the water as an accident of kindness, as a result of a misguided sense of volunteerism on my part. I saw a group of local people pulling at a long fishing line into the sea. An old women, a wizened man, a matron in a colorful smock, a teenaged boy. I decided to help them hoist in their catch. Marcus and Siobonya were not so thrilled. And of course what looked like a simple immersion into local work patterns became a two-hour long arduous job. I am certain that we pulled the fishing nets from India. We engaged in an organized, highly orchestrated tug-o-war with the sea that involved thousands of feet of rope. By the end, as we pulled in the catch, I was both self-congratulatory over a job well done (I worked my ass off, I´ll tell you) but also trepidatious over our catch. After all, for me this was like an impromptu moment of adventure tourism. For the locals, this was dinner, and probably the hope was that it was a lot more. Our group only made up half the work force -- about a hundred meters away, parallel to us, was another group, tugging and sweating as we had been. Eventually the two groups came together to bring our haul in from the dusky ocean. My little part had given me an investment. I wanted to see abundance. Instead I ended up a bit heartbroken -- a few dozen fish, some perplexed and scurrying sand crabs, an eel, apparently of no use, a few dozen jellyfish, certainly of no use, a couple of other sea-denizens I´ve only seen in Natural Geographic. Our cohort probably had dinner, but this was not a joyous haul. Our coworkers, our bosses, seemed resigned. It was a tough way to spend an afternoon. Even tougher, I would surmise, if the haul meant life and livelihood. I went home with an empathetic sense of disappointment and hands approaching blisters. I can only imagine what it meant for the dozens of people who surely saw in that catch hope and dinner.

The rest of the night was about walking on the beach and sipping Mozambiquan beer (2M) and eating more divine seafood and cursing my roommate who, for the second time in six months, bounced a rent check and then mysteriously lost phone and email access while costing me precious money at the end of a month of travels. In any case, pardon the typoes. I do not have the wherewithal to edit, but I hope this gives at least some sense of this subtropical outpost on the Indian Ocean. Tomorrow is New Year´s Eve. I will be spending it on the Indian Ocean. I hope yours will be wonderful as well.

Oh -- and I really wish I spoke Portuguese. Thankfully my brother is fluent in Spanish and can get by pretty well here. As for me, I know the Spanish words for "boogers" and "ponytails" and a few others that come from having a Mexican-American girlfriend with little Godchildren. But I have learned that "mochos" and "chongitos," while fun to say, are of little use at a sweltering, fetid border crossing or during a bribery staredown with a southern African traffic cop.

In a malarial country, I am getting eaten by Mozzies now. In a country, a region, where prophylaxis is a must, I find myself without. So I must scurry to my room and hope for the best, in its way a metaphor for this region I love so much.

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