The flight from Johannesburg to Maputo is short: 45 minutes. Goes up, a quick drink is served, comes down. It’s barely a full flight and the change is obvious- the view below goes from dry to lushly green; from perfectly symmetrical plots of land to a bunch of naturally overgrown jungle.
The plane lands and english comes up in the overhead – “Welcome to Maputo International Airport”; then Portuguese – “Something That Sounds Nostalgic”, then the door opens and a flood of a thousand degrees creeps inside the plane.
Maputo’s airport is loud. The power keeps going off and as light lessens, conversation tone raises. In the dark, I make it to the front of the visa line only to be told that the address of where I am staying won’t do, a confirmation email is required. “But I can’t access my emails,” I tell the woman in charge of stamping visas. She’s silent and in her lack of response I understand it’s my own fault for depending on wifi. She tells me to wait.
And so I wait.
And wait some more.
An italian man is also waiting and he tries to persuade the visa officer to stamp him quickly on the basis of having a reservation at his “favourite restaurant in Maputo”. The visa officer laughs. Oh but the Italian isn’t being funny – a Mediterranean heart is a Mediterranean heart even in the southern tip of Africa.
The woman from Doctor’s Without Borders says she’s in a hurry to get to the office and needs to be giving the visa asap. The visa officer tells her to wait. Yes there’s a cholera outbreak, but she must be patient too.
So the doctor waits. And the Italian waits. And the group of men from Eastern Europe wait. And the student from Lesotho waits. And I wait.
And we wait some more.
Time is the big equaliser in Mozambique. Or the lack thereof. It seems like time is very rarely of the essence.
Three hours go by and I am out of the airport with a Mozambican visa stamped on my passport. Mr Tete – the driver who was supposed to pick me up – is sitting on a bench, his head between his hands looking awfully dramatic and holding a sign with my name on it. I am shocked to find him there. He’s yelling and I can’t tell whether he’s mad at me or excited to finally see me. He mumbles the entire drive and the only thing we agree on is that the heat today is exaggerated.
I make it to M’s place which at first glance looks like a run down building. Later I learn it’s just the Maputo aesthetic. In her parking lot there’s a store sign that reads “Malaria Prevention Shop and Camping”, a gentleman’s hairdressing salon and clothes lines everywhere.
M’s cleaning lady greets me downstairs. She’s very quiet until she realises that I speak Spanish and have no problem pretending to speak Portuguese. She explains how to lock and unlock the bottom gate and then the floor gate and then the first gate to the flat and finally the front door. Four locks in total to get inside the house.
M’s place is a home – there’s photos of people hanging everywhere, there’s Mozambican sculptures and in a few hours there will be Portuguese soap operas playing non stop on the TV.
I go to the corner store to get myself a bottle of water and yogurt for breakfast which proves to be completely unnecessary. M has decided she’ll make breakfast for me every morning – a smoothie of sorts and porridge. She’s awake before I am and I find her in the kitchen wrapped in a shining golden robe and taking her sweet time to do everything. It is the lengthiest porridge making I’ve ever seen but it gives me time to listen to more of her stories.
M has a permanent tan product of spending a lifetime under the sun. She looks Mediterranean but she’s from northern Mozambique and has lived in Maputo for the past 30 years. She works as a psychologist with HIV patients and half exaggerating tells me “most people you see walking down the street here are HIV positive.” It is a country where the average life expectancy is 52. A big leap from 20 years ago when it was 40. She dislikes the police, loves the ocean and wouldn’t live anywhere else.
Maputo is an African metropolis at it’s best. Everyone is selling something, there’s a fruit stand beside a fruit stand beside another fruit stand. There’s tennis shoes for sale all lined up on every street and you can bargain for a good price. In fact you can bargain for pretty much anything. I compliment a woman on the pair of earrings she’s wearing and she offers to sell them at 500 meticais.
Half of the city’s buildings are unfinished, half of those are squatting homes and the other half are abandoned. Avenues are huge and people drive quickly – tuk tuks are fastest, then chapas, then taxis and finally cars- but surely all of them are breaking the speed limit. “My Love”- the name of trucks in Mozambique where you sit so close to your neighbour you might as well call them My love – are overcrowded but it’s also the breeziest option for a city that’s currently sporting 35 degrees in the shade.
And there’s not a lot of shade. At least not in the big avenues- Vladimir Lenin where there’s Brazilian cafes all around and Mao Tse-Tung where all the internet cafes with no internet in the city are located and Julius Nyerere where most expats live. There’s relics of attempted communism everywhere – a statue of ex president Samora donated by North Korea stands in the main intersection. It’s stoic and cold and not particularly attractive exactly like a gift from North Korea should look like.
I stop to have lunch at the French Mozambican Centre. The women in here are glamorous. They wear tight fitted dresses, 70s style sunglass and thick golden jewelry. Men smoke cuban cigars, expats drink beer, food takes forever and the trees smell of jasmine.
Cat calling on the street is excessive. Blonde and white and a woman, I stand out like a lightning rod and it takes me a minute to feel less intimated.
By the time I take my chapa to Tofo up north I’m feeling less intimidated and simply confused – nobody can confirm whether or not this bus is going to Tofo and I just hope I’m not sitting down for 7 hours going in the wrong direction.
The scenery from Maputo changes quickly – it’s an endless line of palm trees, shacks and Vodacom signs. Every seat in the bus is taken and the bus seats X number of people but personal space is overrated so we’ll pack it up. Beside me sat a guy who offered to buy me my headphones (I declined – there’s only so much trance I can listen to on a 15 hrs ride) and in front of me a guy who spoke perfect spanish after spending time in Cuba. The woman two rows down had sad eyes and a baby and packs of kasava. People hop on and off in the middle of roads that look like no-man’s land except it´s not no man’s land – it’s their land and that’s precisely why they know it so well. It’s hot outside and that plus a billion degrees inside.
I’m used to the road blocks happening every 20 minutes. Same routine each time: a police man wearing a pristine white uniforms flags the car down, asks for papers, half looks at them, I assume the bus driver gives him some money, he let’s the bus continue. Except now we’re being asked to get off the bus.
Everyone starts forming a line and so I follow. I make it to the front of the line where it’s my turn to wash my hands with something that smells of antiseptic. I dry them off and get back on the bus. In broken Portuguese I ask what was that and I am met with responses from three people: “cholera. No cholera” Right. We just entered Inhambane and this is where there’s an outbreak of cholera. I’m still unsure how washing our hands in the middle of the road and getting back on that same bus is stopping the outbreak but alas I got clean hands now I guess.
In Tofo the story of Mozambique breaks in two because I meet A and C and S and travelling stops being a solo adventure and becomes a blur of Tipo Tinto and fresh fish and swimming under the most insane starry sky and attempting to surf every morning and bowing down to how unbelievably powerful the ocean is and braaing and riding land rovers to empty beaches and up to Vilankulos where we queue for 2 hours to draw money out and where the tide changes so drastically throughout the day at one point the beach looks like a parking lot for shipwrecks and 2 hours later the water is almost up to our tent.
Before I know it, I’m back on a bus to Maputo and back to M’s house. It’s quarter to 5am now and I’m coming downstairs to meet Mr Tete hoping that if I’m there 15 minutes earlier this time he’ll be less stressed. He is, of course, already there. Time is not of the essence in this country except for this man who takes his job very seriously. He greets me cheerfully. He can tell I’ve a) spent a lot of time under the sun and b) I loved his country. We drive and speak in broken Portuguese and Spanish. He drops me off at the airport and he’s too respectful to go for a hug but a handshake won’t do so instead he gives me a pat on my head. There’s no yelling this time around, Mr Tete and I part in great terms. T: Laura Steiner
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