Thursday, February 26, 2009

Maputo, Mozambique

Friends: I was startled to see the road signs in Mozambique written in Portuguese. It may have been a Portuguese colony, but they still drive on the left hand side. Another surprise was the size of Maputo, its capital. As I turned onto its main boulevard I thought I was in Manhattan with tall buildings lining the traffic-clogged avenue. I arrived during the evening commute, hoping to stumble upon the tourist office before it closed, as I needed directions to a campgrounds or cheap hotel.

There were no signs for it and no one I asked knew where it was until I stopped at one of the bigger hotels.  It wasn't in the heart of the city.   I didn't find it until half an hour after it had closed, but a lingering worker from another governmental department in the same building did his best to help me despite his minimal English. At least he gave me a map, so I could get some bearings of some sort. He was one of many people who went out of there way to try to help me. It had been that way ever since I had crossed into the country. The people in Swaziland were very welcoming, but even more so in Mozambique. This was more what I was hoping Africa would be. It was enough to make me want to return.

Mozambique wasn't included in my Lonely Planet guide so I was on my own searching for a place to stay. It turned into a monumental challenge. There were expensive hotels, but no one wanted to direct me to a cheap locals place. I saw no backpackers or whites to ask. At last a porter at a $40 hotel suggested a place a couple blocks away. His directions weren't precise, nor his name of the hotel. He called it the Carton Hotel, when it was in fact the Carlton. Several people within a couple blocks of it didn't want to send me to it, as it turned out to be a whorehouse. When I finally found it, just as dark was settling in, there were four skimpily dressed women out front.

Two women at the front desk asked me three different times if I really wanted to stay the night and not just for an hour as is customary. They didn't even know what to charge me. I told them I was very tired and desperate and not so rich. One took me upstairs to show me a bare bones room, figuring that would send me fleeing. The room had nothing more than a bed and an overhead fan. The bathroom was just a cold shower without a toilet, but that was more than adequate for me. The price was $12, more than I was hoping for, as I'd only changed $20 at the border for my two days in the country, but I didn't have any choice. I tried to bargain down to ten dollars, but they held firm.

The room turned out to be even more bare bones than I realized, as it didn't come with a light, just the residual light from outside, illumination enough for its clients. When it got fully dark I sat by the open door using the light from the hall to eat by and to pump water through my purifier for my six water bottles. The four women from downstairs each took a turn coming by hoping I might take an interest. It was early for them so they had time to spare. One was bold enough to come in and sit beside me as I pumped the water and insisted that I must need a massage. She thought my legs were very muscular.

They were each ebony beauties of some sophistication, speaking a little English and not without some charm, not the typical hardened, desperate stereotype. I had been reading Paul Theroux's African novel, "Jungle Lovers," about an American insurance salesman in African who partakes of a different prostitute each night at the local bar, being nice to all of them, before settling on one as a wife. Theroux writes in several of his memoirs how he too found it perfectly natural and acceptable and fun to enjoy the company of prostitutes when he was living in Africa in his early 20s. I could see these women were of a different class and temperament than the prostitutes I have been solicited by in other third world countries--Cuba, Mexico, Morocco and elsewhere--but I also knew that Mozambique had a stratospheric rate of AIDs, making "no" the only possible answer to their solicitations.

I politely told each I was exhausted and ready to collapse. I didn't even have the energy to go out and eat or search out the Internet. I had bought six hard boiled eggs from a street vendor and still had some bread and peanut butter and baked beans to finish off. I would have liked to have gone wandering, but I'd had two hard days and needed to rest my legs. There was an abundance of street life. Vendors took over sidewalks. Dozens of shoes lined up in pairs filled several squares of sidewalk on nearly every block. Little girls stood in the street with bottles of water on their head and a glass in hand for thirsty motorists. Young boys clutched three rolls of toilet paper waving them at motorists. It was a lively place. One of the main streets was Karl Marx Boulevard. It was intersected by a Ho Chi Minh Street. I had taken such a liking to Mozambique I was sorry I needed to swing back to South Africa the next day, just getting a small sampling of this large country with one of the longest coastlines in Africa.

I was at least able to cover the length of Swaziland, as it is just 100 miles long, before crossing into Mozambique. It is one of the smallest of Africa's 54 countries, half the size of Lesotho, with half the population, but twice the average annual income. Sugar cane is its leading export, but it also has some industry, unlike Lesotho. It has five game reserves and unlike South Africa allows bicyclists to ride through them, though there are warning signs specifically for cyclists to be on the alert for lions and elephants.

As I passed through Hlane Game Santuary in northeast Swaziland, it was the only time I felt a twinge of fright in this otherwise safe haven of a country, feeling a sense of wariness that four-legged predators lurked. It was nothing though compared to the ripples of panic sent up my spine to the bottom of my throat that also contorted my heart with fright when I spotted a pedestrian or two up the road in South Africa, reminding me of my assault. At this Game Sanctuary in Swaziland I welcomed the sight of a pedestrian as something to celebrate, not dread, meaning it must be safe.

I felt as if I had crossed into some dream world when the first pedestrian I passed in Swaziland brightened with a luminous smile, raised his hand and greeted me with a hearty wave and "Good morning." It was so unlike any encounter I'd had in South Africa or even Lesotho, I eagerly anticipated the next pedestrian hoping for a similar reaction. It was a woman carrying a young child strapped to her back. She too erupted into a shiny beacon of welcome. And so it went, one after another.

Their kindly demeanor emphasized all the more how surly and sinister so many of the South African blacks could be. If they weren't glum or grim, they could be mean and menacing. It was no act. The blacks were greatly abused during the apartheid era and many are still pissed. Many blacks grew up fearing and hating whites and wanting to kill any and all. Their anger has been tempered with time, but a strong residue from that time remains. The inequities and discrimination are no where near as pronounced as they once were, but South Africa still remains largely a country of whites and a country of blacks, and the whites have it pretty good and the blacks pretty shitty.

I'm not particularly looking forward to going back and having to be continually on guard and subjected to searing looks of hatred. At least it is somewhat tempered by the overwhelming friendliness of the whites to one of their own.

Later, George

1 comment:

Yonder Vittles said...

to hell with going back to south africa - i want to hear more about mozambique. keep riding george. later, aaron.