AFRICAN NATION CONTINUES TO BATTLE BACK A DECADE AFTER FIGHTING A SAVAGE CIVIL WAR.
By MARK WAITESPECIAL TO THE PVT. - November 11, 2005
IBO, Mozambique - The Mozambican waitress at the small Casa Janina Guest House on Ibo island placed the four lobster dinners for the two tourist couples on the table, but didn't think of knocking on their doors informing them their food was ready. A cat jumped up on one of the tables and already started nibbling at one of the dinners.The tasty seafood - like the $7 lobster dinners, pristine beaches, Portuguese colonial ports and practically no tourists make northern Mozambique a prime, new tourist destination. But Mozambicans still have to learn a lot about providing services to the new foreign visitors who have been slowly trickling into the idyllic, northern part of the country after the end of the Mozambican civil war more than 10 years ago.Travel in Mozambique can be tough. I crossed the Rovuma River, the border between Tanzania and Mozambique, by a skiff powered by a trolling motor. A passenger spotted a crocodile in the water. I was told previously there was a ferry across the river; it sat grounded on a sandback with a vehicle on board.On the Mozambique side of the river there wasn't an immigration check post; that office was more than four miles up a sandy, two-wheeled track. There wasn't a truck that day, I was told, so I hired a boy to carry my bags. I had to rouse the immigration officer from an open-air restaurant to go into the office, inspect my visa and stamp my passport. It was one of the most laid-back border crossings I've ever seen.An Austrian couple was sitting outside the immigration office, watching a Mozambican man installing heavy-duty shock absorbers on his pickup truck. A clutch sat on the sand next to the truck along with a gaggle of other parts. The Austrian guy joked that in the four hours they sat there waiting for a ride he had half the parts of the truck laid out on the ground. Eventually the driver put the truck together and - to my dismay - drove back to the river to pick up passengers. First, laborers piled three huge bales of used clothing on the back of the truck, two bales were stacked in front, while passengers sat on the other large bale in the back. The back latch was pulled down and passenger's luggage stacked on top and then the luggage was tied onto the bales. By the time I boarded the truck the only seat was on a corner of the bale. I held onto a strap holding the bale together but was afraid I'd fall off the truck if he made a sharp turn. When we stopped again at immigration I found a more secure spot between a bar behind the cab of the truck and the two bales, but got a little bruised up when we hit bumps.We passed nighttime scenes of grinding poverty: the local Mozambicans live in mud huts with thatched roofs, with only a candle burning at night to provide light. After traveling on the two-wheel, sandy track with tree branches flying at us, we reached the main north-south road at Palma. The truck passengers mumbled something about going to "Simbwa." I realized they were referring to Mocimboa da Praia, the first town of any size a four-hour drive away. The attendant for the truck driver wrote the amount I owed in the sand by the tail light, 300,000 Mozambian meticais, about $12; not good value for such a rough ride.I rested my aching bones for a day in Mocimboa da Praia, a poor, Moslem town with sandy streets. I did notice on the seafront an unmarked building with what looked like brown-colored bottles on the tables, to my luck there was cold beer served inside. The obese Portuguese woman sitting in the back room never left her sofa, but from the couch she cooked up a good shrimp plate. A Kenyan boat captain hauling logs out of Mozambique offered me a free lift to The Comores islands, where he said there were frequent passenger boats to Madagascar, a tempting offer.There is a good bus service between major towns in Mozambique, unfortunately the buses all leave at 5 a.m. Fortunately, guesthouse owners are good about remembering early morning wakeup calls. I grabbed the last seat on the bus the next morning. When the driver passed other passengers waiting on the road outside town, he had to tell them, "no hay lugares" (there's no room), they would have to take a truck. I traveled eight hours south to Pemba, a beachfront town with actual paved streets and concrete buildings where I could use my ATM card at a bank.Wimbe Beach just outside town is a picture-perfect, white sand beach with no tourists and no pesky vendors. The only accommodation, however, was at Complexo Caracol, where rooms across the street from the beach started at $40 per night. Mozambique is poorer but more expensive than neighboring African countries. An entry in a guidebook suggested Russell's Place, about five miles south of Pemba town, where Englishman Russell Bott built a few cabins and a restaurant and bar six years ago. The pillars of the restaurant were adorned with local Makonde woodcarvings, the exquisite handicraft of the Pemba region. I booked a dorm bed for $7.Before I could spend much more time on the beach I had to find suntan lotion. I managed to locate a supermarket in Pemba selling a No. 8 Nivea suntan lotion - at more than $16. Tourists who travel to northern Mozambique have to come prepared; obviously the locals don't need suntan lotion. After a few days of relaxing at Russell's Place, Russell arranged a flight for me to historic Ibo Island, in the southern part of the Quirimbas Archipelago, a group of 31 islands stretching up to the Tanzanian border. The $65 flight in an eight-seater, Australian-made Gippsland Airvan lasted about 25 minutes. The bush pilot was stereotypical - a South African man wearing blue shorts and a white shirt with his captain's bars on his shoulder. We flew over pristine islands with coral reefs. There were goats on the dirt airstrip as we landed on Ibo Island.The Portuguese chose Ibo Island in 1754 as a main clearing house for slaves and ivory. It was formerly the capital of Cabo Delgado province until the capital was moved to Pemba. Today, Ibo is almost deserted with only a few hundred people left to wander among the colonial, Portuguese buildings like the Customs House, the old church and the school on the main square. A dog could sleep on the main street, Rua da Republica, where the only buildings that seemed to be open were the police station and the "Sete do Comite Distrital."I rang the bell at the discoteca, to summon a girl and order some lunch. She served a meal of a brown, slimy substance; a foreign food aid worker from the Spanish Basque country staying at Casa Janina later said I was probably eating snails. It was the only food available.Two forts in town include the Fort Sao Jose, which dates from 1760, and Fortim Santo Antonio, built in 1847. Outside town, visible from the air, is the large, five-sided Fort Joao Baptista, built in 1791, where silversmiths inside were busy making jewelry out of melted coins. The new tourist development on the idyllic Mozambique islands is obviously not targeted for the backpacker crowd with triple-digit room rates in U.S. dollars.While one Mozambican sailor steered the rudder, the other sailor occasionally tied off the main sail to catch the maximum wind and often bailed out the water that trickled in through the creaky, wooden boards. We arrived on Pangane Beach seven hours later after watching the big red ball of the sun set over the mainland and a bigger orange full moon rise over the Indian Ocean. A single light on shore signaled Pousada Pangane, Suki's Guest House, one of two places to stay.The next day I found a much more idyllic but primitive place to stay. There were three huts on the beach out on the point. There wasn't any electricity just a lantern and bathrooms were outside in a thatched enclosure. The Moslem owner didn't serve alcohol, just warm cokes, but his wife cooked up some tasty seafood. Somewhat cool beer was available out of the cooler at Suki's Guest House down the beach in town.Pangane had more white sand beaches and clear water. It was a very active fishing village. Women walked out to sea at low tide to harvest seafood, mostly octopus, in a daily part of their routine, like sweeping the leaves from the sand in front of their mud huts first thing in the morning. Villages offered me octopus and squid from buckets, an old man held up lobsters while a little girl had a bag full of big, red-shelled crabs. Women put sardines out on racks to dry. It was a bit discomforting, however, to see women beating octopi to death on the beach. The villagers also weren't accustomed to seeing white foreigners sunbathing on the beach, it was an interesting cross-cultural exchange.I wish I could've stayed longer but I needed more cash. I caught a lift with a retired doctor working in Africa. I thought how Pangane 10 years from now could be filled with beachfront bungalows. For now, however, access was difficult. Mozambicans were packed into pickup trucks heading out to the village from the main highway on a dirt road that turned into a sandy, two-wheeled track near the beach.The doctor dropped me off about 200 miles south on the junction of a busy, east-west highway from the coast of Mozambique to Malawi, the next country west. Rocky outcroppings rose straight up out of the flat countryside. Boys hawked live chickens they held up by the feet. Woven mats for sale were hanging from tree branches.I caught a ride in a truck to Nacala, the busy port on the coast. The truck driver offered me a seat in the cab - it seems there's an advantage being a white tourist in Africa. From Nacala, I called Bay Diving, a business on a hilltop overlooking scenic Fernao Velhoso Bay opened by Arthur and Sara, a South African couple, about five years ago around the same time Russell's Place opened farther north. I was the only guest and hence I couldn't piggyback on any scuba diving trips to go snorkeling, but the views of the bay lined with white sand beaches from the windswept hilltop were exquisite. After a few days it was time to head to historic Ilha da Mocambique, one of the country's prime tourist destinations. I caught a lift on the back of a truck from the main highway the remaining 40 miles to the island with a man who had a German shepherd in the back. The big dog created quite a stir after we crossed the long bridge to the island; boys in town were teasing the dog as we drove by, the German shepherd reciprocated by barking at the boys, while bystanders laughed. When we stopped at Casa Gabriel to inquire about a room, the dog jumped out of the truck; the local boys followed as the dog ran down a back alley, then they all came running back out laughing and shouting when the dog scampered back to the main street, like the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Casa Gabriel is named after the St. Gabriel Church, built by a group of Portuguese settlers in 1502, which no longer stands.Many guesthouses and hotels were full due to a three-day Mozambican weekend, as wealthier Mozambicans cruised around town in nice pickup trucks, the highest number of private vehicles I'd seen in the country. A friendly clerk at O Escododinho Hotel directed my porter to take me to Casa Antonietta, an unmarked, old building with wooden furniture from India. I negotiated with the jovial caretaker, Joao, to get a room discounted from $20 to $16 per night.Ilha de Mocambique was used by Arab merchants from the 10th to the late 15th centuries, according to information on a Web site called Geo Cities. Unlike Zanzibar, which has more of an Arab architectural influence. Ilha de Mocambique has the unmistakable colonial stamp of the Portuguese. Vasco de Gama landed there in 1498 on his maiden voyage from Portugal to India, his statue overlooks the sea in front of the historic Palacio do Sao Paulo, which contains a museum with paintings of the Portuguese governors and kings and furniture from far flung parts of the then Portuguese empire such as India and Chinese porcelain. A beautiful chapel with a gold altar was attached to the palace and a maritime museum with cannons and even cannonballs. Behind the palace was the Miseracordia Church.The local tourist information office is located next to the palace, but there were only photocopies of a map of town and a booklet on Ilha de Mocambique written in Portuguese. The tour guide spoke only Portuguese.The Nossa Senhora da Baluarte chapel behind the Fortaleza Sao Sebastiao was the first church built in Africa in 1522, according to my guide. The fort itself dates from 1558. The edifice withstood an attack by the Dutch in 1607. From the fort one can look out on the white sand beaches of Chocas do Mar across the bay and enticing offshore Goa island with its lighthouse, both places are accessible with a $20 dhow ride.Ilha de Mocambique prospered with the repulsive slave trade from 1750 to 1840 and was the capital of Mozambique until the Portuguese moved the capital to Lourenco Marques, far to the south, in 1898. The opening of the deepwater port of Nacala nearby in 1947 spelled the end of Ilha da Mocambique in importance.A boy sold beads along the seafront, one of the few vendors. Early explorers exchanged beads with the natives, like the Dutch exchanged beads with the Indians at Manhattan Island in New York. They made appropriate souvenirs. A procession of women in colorful costumes were winding past the Santo Antonio church on the shore for the Festival do Mariscos, while fishermen mended their nets and two other fishermen were building a boat out of wood. The night festival at the fortaleza featured a live band, but unlike its name, there wasn't any marisos, or seafood for sale. The woman working the bar was unable to make change and resorted to writing out IOUs on paper.Some buildings, like the port captain's headquarters and the bank were well preserved, other buildings were crumbling. Funds were available to restore public buildings but many private dwellings were untouched. I enjoyed a delicious stuffed crab lunch at O Escododinho, ordering one of the specials from the chalkboard written in Portuguese. I dined on delicious "peixe grelhado," grilled fish, at the other restaurant in town, The Reliquias restaurant, for dinner. After three days on Ilha de Mocambique I felt I walked the same four north-south streets enough times and took three trucks 120 miles west to Nampula, the largest city in northern Mozambique. The next morning the train left at 5 a.m. from Nampula for Cuamba, near the Malawi border. The arrival of the train was a highlight of the day for the poor villagers en route, who held up any goods they had for sale including onions, bell peppers, peanuts, tomatoes, carrots, bananas and at one fair-sized town, tasty, barbecued chicken.We arrived in the early afternoon in Cuamba, where I boarded a crowded truck bound for Lichinga, near Lake Malawi. Only after checking my pocket did I realize someone at the train station in Cuamba picked my front pocket clean of 3.5 million meticais, about $150, I didn't feel a thing. The guidebook said there was an ATM at a bank in Lichinga; the truck driver let me pay him when we arrived. It was a grueling, dusty and hungry nine-hour truck ride 180 miles to Lichinga, a cool, highland town.I felt like I was traveling into virgin tourist country in Mozambique's Niassa province. At one town the children didn't stop staring at me the whole time the truck stopped there. While sitting on benches on the back of a truck heading from Lichinga down to Lake Malawi, a couple different women held their babies up to stare at the white tourist.The truck driver heading down the hill to Lake Malawi dropped me off at Chuanga Beach, where I was the only guest at Complexo Cetuka; the guest register showed the last guests signed in 17 days ago. The only food they had the night I arrived was French fries, a plain omelet and warm beer, but over the next two days they put together fish and chicken dinners. One hotel worker named Thomas spoke some English, having worked in Malawi, and led me up to a hilltop one morning with a picturesque view of the lakeshore. The local residents were dirt poor, living in mud huts on red sandy soil amid majestic baobab trees.I walked among the local market with Thomas and complained I had been unable to find a souvenir Mozambique T-shirt anywhere in the country; indeed not even a postcard. The last night at Complexo Cetuka, after dinner, Thomas walked in with a T-shirt from a hotel in Maputo, Mozambique, hundreds of miles south. The next day I caught a boat across the lake to Malawi the next country to the west.I thought of when I was at the Reliquias restaurant on Ilha de Mocambique, when I sat next to a Belgian couple offering tours of southern Africa, who were scouting out northern Mozambique. The woman said they probably wouldn't offer tours as the level of service wasn't very good and people paying good money for a tour would complain. I was glad they decided not to begin tours. Though a place like Ilha de Mocambique is an historical treasure - having been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991 - there are still very few tourists there like the rest of northern Mozambique. But with new resorts going up on the offshore islands, the peace and quiet of this tropical paradise could change. They might even start selling souvenir T-shirts and postcards and perhaps even find out lobster tails taste much better dipped in melted butter.
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