For me, it all started while sitting on a bench discussing environmentalism with a Dutch zoologist.
“Would you like to go to Borneo ?” she asked me, out of the blue.
“I’ve always wanted to go, and I hear it’s really beautiful there.”
For those who don’t know, Borneo is a very big island on the equator in South East Asia. It is not a hospitable place – mostly it is covered in jungle, crawling with snakes, spiders, mosquitoes, cats, and more. In fact I’m sure there is a whole lot that can kill you in Borneo which means not a whole lot of people live there. It’s not possible to fly directly to Borneo; you probably need to fly to Kuala Lumpur and then board a tiny light aircraft destined for a dirt runway in a clearing in the jungle.
“It’ll be fun,” said Marie-Claire with a look of deep sincerity and eagerness that can only be mustered by zoologists.
“Ok, I’ll come with,” I replied. How could I possibly turn an offer like that down?
However, when Toni suggested we go to Mozambique instead, it seemed positive sane. It seemed like a marvellous little trip, a mere dash across the border, a drive to the coast. I mean, it couldn’t be more arduous than a trip to Durban ? Could it? Well. Maybe just a little. We went to Mozambique for the Easter break. When I say “we”, allow me to give you the break down of my travel companions. In our party were five adults over the age of thirty, comprised of three Israelis, one Turk and one African. We also had four children under the age of ten, of which two were also Israeli and two were adoptees from Kazakhstan. (I am 24, Irish.) Between us we could speak seven languages, although most conversation only took place in two (English & Hebrew). The extraordinary nature of our travel group did not end there. For in this mix we had a marketing guru, a successful businessman from Cuba , a pro photographer, a raki healer and a spiritual advisor. (I am a software engineer.)
We departed fully equipped for the dangers that lurked ahead. Well, sort of. Well, actually not really. We had some fresh water (I think). I had packed a tube of mosquito repellent. We were driving a Chrysler Grand Voyager and a Mercedes Benz E-Class (two cars not renowned for their off road prowess.) But we were off (albeit two hours late) and nothing was between us and Maputo but a long road and a border post. Ahem.
The South Africa/Mozambique border post is literally falling apart. There were pieces of the ceiling lying on the floor. Queues of sweaty, smelly bodies packed the interior. Flies circled lazily overhead, where you would normally expect to see a ceiling fan. Babies wailed. I shuddered.
The process works something like this: Do not ask questions. Carry cash in small denominations, and hand it over when asked (you will be asked repeatedly). Ensure you have passports and car registrations papers, or failing this, extra cash. Go to the insurance broker office (a tiny derelict building unattached to the customs building). Fill out the forms. Give the friendly attendant some money. He will enter the customs building from the secret side entrance and push his way right to the front of the queue and hand over your passports. No one will complain or consider this rude behaviour. Hang around chatting to Swedish tourists and making fun of Japanese tourists. Retrieve your passports. Pay some more money. Return to your car, and drive hastily into Mozambique. If you are lucky this will take only two hours.
Suddenly I understood why Mozambican immigrants regularly enter the country illegally by crossing the Kruger National Park on foot, braving lions, hippos, snakes and crocodiles on route. I would too if it meant I could avoid that sorry excuse for a border post. Anyway, time for a quick side track.
European history abounds with stories of warfare. It seems that not a week went by without a baron, prince, king, emperor or sheik deciding to knock hell out his nearest neighbour by rounding up the peasants, arming them and sending them off to die on battlefields. European borders have been, quite literally, drawn in blood. African borders on the other hand were drawn on maps (this is apparent if you consider how remarkably straight many of the African borders are). You can just image a group of European colonial lords getting together in a drawing room, sitting in overstuffed chairs, puffing pipes, sipping cognac and trying to decide how to carve up Africa as if it was a birthday cake, with absolutely no regard for the tribes that happened to live in these areas.
“Well, alright George, we’ll take Madagascar, but I think you’re being a bit greedy taking all of East Africa.”
“Don’t be ridiculous Louis, most of East Africa is desert, nothing there at all of any value, it’s actually hurting me that we have to colonise the damn place.”
The names chosen by these European lords for their new colonies lacked creativity, for example “British East Africa “, “German South West Africa “, and our intended destination “Portuguese East Africa”.
After World War II, crippled European nations were unable to hang onto their colonies which began to slip from their grasp one by one. Revolution was a popular method of expelling the hated colonialists, but as P.J. O’Rourke points out in his cracker book “Holidays in Hell” – “It’s one thing to burn down the shit house; it’s an entirely different thing to install plumbing”. I don’t think the Mozambicans quite got round to the plumbing bit, for after kicking the out Portuguese, two rival factions (Frelimo & Renamo) waged a bitter civil war for 25 years. They mined the roads, shot civilians, and generally destroyed the country until there was nothing left to fight over. But that all happened a while ago, I was assured by my friends, the fighting has stopped now and Mozambique is actually quite a nice place.
A friend of mine, Anthony, visited Croatia a few years after the Yugoslavian war. He brought back stories of how he’d seen a pile of rubble next to the road where a house used to stand before it was unlucky enough to get hit by a shell, and right next door stood a brand spanking new house just recently built. He told me that you could still see bullet holes in walls along the streets.
This is not the case in Mozambique . I didn’t see any signs of recent warfare – no bullet holes, no flattened buildings, no one-legged land mined victims. It was impossible for me to believe that until quite recently they were hell bent on butchering each other. The one thing I did notice was that although Maputo has an impressive number of sky-rise apartment blocks, nothing taller than a one story building has been built for the last 30 years. And there are a lot of dead trees. There are lots of live trees too, but it seems that when trees die the branches are lopped off and the dismembered trunk is left to stand in the middle of the sidewalk.
In Maputo we met up with Guy, an Israeli, and a close friend of Anat. I have lived most of my life in Africa, and yet Guy has seen more of it in a few short years. He explained to me that he originally caught a plane from Israel destined for India on Ethiopian Airlines (it was the cheapest ticket). The plane stopped over in Addis Ababa, where Guy ended up staying for 3 months. I gather he has also been to Tanzania and South Africa, and is now living in Mozambique. He never did go to India.
We spent the night in Guy’s three bedroom apartment on the 12th floor. The main elevator in Guy’s building is now a private elevator, as it was recently refurbished at great expense by a select group of residents who decided to put a lock on it. We used the service elevator which inexplicably only stops on the 10th and 15th floors. While we were unpacking, Bob and Isaac came into the flat and said they had witnessed something very weird thing on the ground floor. Apparently they were carrying some luggage into the service elevator when the security guard came running past at full tilt being chased by an armed man. (The fine details are a bit fuzzy, he may have been carrying a gun, but this is Africa after all, he may have been carrying a panga. Suffice to say, he was armed.) Bob and Isaac bundled into the service elevator, slammed the door and made their way up to the 10th floor. After hearing this story I shrugged my shoulders, lit another cigarette and expected to hear no more. A while later someone rang the door bell. Guy looked through the peephole and then turned to me with a rather shocked expression. “There is a group of armed men outside the front door,” he said. I took a look myself. There was indeed a crowd of men, and they were armed, this time most definitely with guns. And they appeared to be in blue uniforms.
“It’s the police,” said Guy with a tone that suggested this was not a good thing. Guy rushed inside and conferred with the travel group. I think he hoped that the cops would go away. Unfortunately they were quite persistent. They rang the bell, knocked, rang, knocked, shouted, and so on for about ten minutes. Eventually Guy decided to open the door a fraction.
I should mention at this point that the official language in Mozambique is Portuguese. I don’t speak Portuguese, nor did anyone else in our travel group besides Guy, who can speak a little. But suddenly, he had decided while talking to these (heavily armed) policemen that he couldn’t speak any Portuguese. And they couldn’t speak any English. I watched all of this from the balcony, quite bemused, and dragged on my cigarette. Eventually, after much haggling, the cops took a quick look into the interior of the flat, decided nothing was amiss and then trooped off. Afterwards, we gathered from Guy that they had come to see if we were OK because they had heard that we had been chased by an armed man. I thought this was awfully considerate of them. In South Africa you’d have to catch the criminal, tie him to a chair, threaten to kill him with a blunt butter knife, and then call the cops on speaker phone while you taunted him before they might decide that perhaps they should send someone around.
Guy, on the other hand, was not as appreciative. “The only times I ever had dealings with the police, it’s always been a bad thing for me. When ever I see cops, I get scared. Plus we have a pile of weed on the table, and I really don’t want armed men coming in here when we’ve got young children in the flat.” He had some good points. The men decided to go out for an evening of carousing, while Toni and Anat stayed in the flat to look after the kids. I was tired, but we were only in Maputo for one night, so I decided to make the best of it.
As we cruised down the main coastal boulevard, Guy had one hand on the wheel and the other clutching a bottle of Smirnoff Ice. He turned to me and said: “You know what I really like about Mozambique ? Not only can you drink and then drive, you can actually drink and drive at the same time and no one will stop you.” I decided that this was a wonderfully liberal attitude and sucked heartily on my own drink. Our destination was the “Africa Bar”. “It’s a mix,” said Guy. “Maybe 20% European, 20% Asian, the rest African. Beautiful woman.”
We strolled in to the club carrying our drinks. I expected to be stopped, felt up by a doorman, charged an entrance fee and then liberated of my drink. None of this happened. Marvellous!
Guy was right about the beautiful women. I was dancing by myself for about 30 seconds when Guy came over dancing with a Mozambican beauty and promptly sandwiched me between them. Then he disengaged, leaving me dancing with a fiery young lady whose name I didn’t even know.
“What’s your name?” she asked. “Patrick,” I replied. “Ah. My name is Nina.”
Ok so now I knew her name. Nina. Nice and simple; I only managed to forget it twice. Let me tell you, African woman can dance. They move and sway like flames of an open fire. You realise how stiff and creaky you are in comparison when you try and dance with them. “You dance so well!” she complemented me. I wasn’t sure if she was being sarcastic, or if she really meant “You dance so well for a white guy”.
I have danced with many girls, but I’ve never danced with a girl quite like this one. It was like fucking standing up. Her butt was pressed into my lap, we were swaying together, her hands were running up my legs, my butt, my back. Then she turned around and pushed her body against mine, grinding her leg against my crotch. She tried to kiss me, but I pulled back.
“You don’t want kiss? You are a gentleman?” Well no, actually I have a girlfriend asleep three blocks away, and I’m feeling quite guilty doing this, but I’m really enjoying it, and I’d like to continue just a little longer. The music was pounding so loud I began to loose all sense of hearing.
I disentangled myself from Nina and offered to buy her a drink from the bar. “Millers,” she replied without a moment’s hesitation. I ordered drinks and then tried to light a cigarette. She grabbed it from my mouth, broke it in half, and threw it on the floor.
This was not a good way to start a relationship. I liked my cigarettes. I fixed her a hard glare, pulled another one out and lit it. Nina pouted. The Millers arrived, which gave her something else to do with her lips. I paid for the drink in Rands and received Meticais as change. This is an amusing currency. The exchange rate is R1 to 3,300mc. Lay R300 on the table and you too can be a millionaire. The barman was wearing rubber gloves to handle the money because it is so grubby and dirty. I dangled my change between my thumb and forefinger and had to think long and hard before I inserted it into my wallet.
I decided to admire Nina for a while. She really was quite beautiful, short spiky hair, well defined nose, sincere smile, and a perfectly shaped body. She was wearing beige Roxy pants that sat around her hips revealing a little lacy g-string beneath.
“Let’s go dance!” she announced cheerily. Dragged by the arm, puffing my cigarette and trying not to slop my drink, I followed Nina the dance floor and continued fucking vertically.
It was enormous fun. I looked around and realised that everyone else was doing it, some even more vigorously. We danced, swayed, rubbed, sweated. I could smell her sweat, and thankfully all I could smell of myself was Hugo Boss, Dark Blue.
“Will you come with me?” she asked.
“Will you come home with me?”
Uh-oh. That was quite forward.
“No, no, I can’t.”
I managed to disentangle myself again to go buy drinks. I found Guy.
“Guy, I need to go home. Right now.”
“But we only just got here. Can I finish my drink first?” Guy was holding a rather large mostly full beer. “OK,” I replied. I decided to go outside for a smoke. Nina followed me. She didn’t really speak much English and I didn’t speak any Portuguese. Conversation was not possible, which is a pity because it would have been nice to chat to her. I got her to teach me a few words of Portuguese. “Dead”, “tree”, “beer”, and others. (I’ve forgotten the translations…)
“Let’s go dance!” she announced again, cheerily. Now, I do karate three times a week. I run around the block every other day. I am fit. But damn, after a half an hour of dancing with Nina, I was panting. She seemed as fresh as every, hopping from one foot to another, wiggling her bum and smiling a big happy smile. After dancing some more she tried her luck again.
“Will you come home with me tonight?”
“No, no, I can’t.”
“Why not?” She seemed genuinely crestfallen. It seemed she really wanted a good excuse. I spotted Guy and dragged her over.
“Guy, please will you tell Nina that I’m going far away tomorrow and I’m not coming back.”
He repeated the sentence in Portuguese and then translated her response.
“She says, just for one night.” She nodded emphatically, holding up one finger. OK, I’d like to stop the bus right here. At this point in the evening I am tired from a eight hour drive (including a two hour stop at a crumbing border post), I have had at least three stiff drinks, I have a serious hard-on, and I am being asked by a gorgeous sweaty young woman, to please, pretty please, come back to her place and have wild sex with her. I would like all the male readers out there to admire the sheer willpower and strength of character it took to turn to Guy and say: “I must go home now. Right now.” (Apologies to exclude the female readers on this one.)
Guy smiled a knowing smile and said “OK”. I could have hugged him. Nina was disappointed to see me go, but I finally managed to extricate myself from her clutches and make a run for the car. Bob had hooked up with another one of Guy’s beautiful female friends, and they caught a ride with us. We dropped them at her house on the way home. I was very jealous.
I mentioned to Guy that the Mozambican girls seemed extraordinarily friendly. I gathered that he had enjoyed this ‘friendliness’ on numerous occasions. I contemplated the unfairness of the fact that beautiful woman seem to only want to have sex with me while I’m involved in a serious relationship. I realise now that it’s probably because I’ve spent most of my life involved in serious relationships with beautiful women. So I don’t feel too bad.
I crawled into bed next to a slumbering Toni, feeling rather guilty, hoping I didn’t smell of Nina. In her sleep, Toni rolled over, put her head on my shoulder, nuzzled her face into my neck and wrapped her arms around my chest. I smiled.
The next morning we departed Maputo in convoy. I was driving in the lead car with Guy who decided to take a short cut to get us onto the main road to Belin. Bad idea. At best, Mozambique’s main roads are riddled with potholes. The side roads appear to be held together with one part tarmac and one part prayer. We were following an enormous freight truck that happily trundled into and through a muddy ditch about 20 meters long. Unable to follow, we tried to cross by clinging to a set of abandoned railways tracks that ran alongside the road. After much thudding and crunching, we made it across. I couldn’t bear to watch Isaac cross in his Mercedes-Benz.
The roads were lined with tiny informal stores selling foodstuffs and assorted supplies. Nobody seems particularly interested in building proper brick and mortar structures to operate from. Everything looks as if it was thrown together last week, and might disappear tomorrow, but has probably been there for years, and will be there for years to come (or until the next flood).
A few hours later we arrived in Belin. Guy had arranged accommodation for us in a lovely guest house (owned by one of his friends). We unpacked, and headed for the beach. It was paradise. Image soft white sand, clear turquoise water, thatch umbrellas and beautiful girls in thong bikinis. I flipped on my shades I walked into (what felt like) a Sports Illustrated photo shoot. Glorious! Guy and Toni decided it was definitely time to smoke a joint, but they didn’t have any read-rolled. After some searching, they discovered two in Bob’s bag, but he got defensive when the suggested smoking them.
“No, no, that is my emergency supply!” shouted Bob.
“What do you mean?” cried Guy. “We’ll smoke those, and then when they are finished we will roll some more.”
“No, it is an emergency supply. Because maybe later I will feel like a joint and then I will smoke one of these.”
“I can’t believe this,” cried Guy, “you are being so selfish!”
“No, no, it’s not selfish. This is the emergency supply.”
“But this is an emergency! We don’t have any joints!”
“Yes, but you can just roll one.”
At this point in the argument, I would have given up. You can’t argue when the other person doesn’t seem to be making any sense. But Guy was not going to give up, and he had Toni on his side. Eventually they wore Bob down and begrudgingly he gave up his emergency supply. I’m not sure if I’m a fan of smoking weed before noon on a hot sunny beach. Call me old fashioned. It just seems that a cocktail with a strawberry and a little paper umbrella would be more appropriate. I did try to get a cocktail from the cute little beach bar.
Unfortunately this was beyond their skills, so I ended up getting stoned after all. I must say, swimming while stoned in Belin’s placid shallow waters was great. The kids were happily paddling around, splashing each other and laughing shrilly. We played silly little games. First, I swung them around by the arms, and then later I launched them off my back. I have never been happier.
I went back to the beach bar in the hope that perhaps someone else would be there and that, just maybe, they could make me a cocktail. With a little paper umbrella. It was not to be. I did chat up a pretty girl in a small bikini. Her name was Nelly and she turned out to be a really intelligent, friendly and interesting Austrian social worker, working in Maputo on a UNICEF project. (Which reinforces my belief that one should always chat to pretty girls in bikinis.) In my usual forward style I asked her if she would show me around Vienna when she returned to Austria. She laughed and said yes.
We headed off to the local restaurant for lunch. I’d say it’s worth going all the way to Mozambique just to eat the prawns. Their size is only matched by their taste – they are enormous and delicious. Just to be different, I ordered crab. You will be pleased to know it’s also excellent.
“You can’t know how good this is!” exclaimed Toni between mouthfuls. A warning: you may have to wait a few hours for your food. The wheels turn slowly in Mozambique . It is worth the wait. Another warning: The crab may arrive an hour before the prawns, so if everyone digs into your plate, make sure you keep careful track of how much is removed and that it is returned in kind when the prawns arrive. Later in the evening, Guy and I went out for a party. I suggested the beach bar.
“Too many South Africans,” sneered Guy in a tone of voice one normally reserves for Americans. We went anyway, and he was right, the South Africans do bring the place down. Not only do they drive noisy 4x4’s and quad bikes on the roads, and noisy jet-skis and motor boats on the lagoon, they drink beer and watch rugby instead of partying like everyone else. Nelly happened to be there, so we dragged her off and when dancing at the “Discotheka”. Mozambicans know how to party. They don’t bother with fancy outfits, tasteful décor or poser DJs.
They just crank up the volume, and shake their booty. It is very, very cool.
After a while we retired to the beach for an “emergency” (i.e. another joint). We were joined by Nelly, one of her Mozambican friends (I think) and some other random Mozambican guy (I have no idea who he was). After the joint had gone around a few times the conversation became rather philosophical. The random Mozambican guy starting going on about how he had lived for six years in South Africa but he felt the country was far too racist.
He gave examples:
“I used to have my own company, and my own truck. When I arrived at a white person’s house, they would say things like: “Give me your bosses phone number I want to ask him something.” “I am the boss!” he roared. “It is my truck! Why can’t it be my truck? Why do they assume that I work for a white guy? It is my truck!”
The examples continued:
“One day, I was walking down the street and a policeman asked to see my ID. How many times do you get asked to show your ID on the street? Why can’t a black man walk down the road in Africa without having to prove that he belongs there?”
I must admit, he did have a point. I have very little conception about what life is like for a Mozambican immigrant living in Johannesburg . And I wasn’t in the mood to defend South Africa, seeing as I was emigrating from the country myself in a few days.
I gathered that Nelly wasn’t a big weed smoker, and after a few puffs she seemed to relax considerably. Guy helped the process along by giving her a massage. He is a very good masseuse, and occasionally will do rather unnerving things such as walk up behind you and begin to massage a knot in your neck that you didn’t realise you had, but are suddenly very glad is being attended to. I must learn this skill. Nelly was turning into putty in his hands, and started making remarks such as “Perhaps we should go home and you can continue this at my place?” I got a bit jealous and said a few things which kinda ruined the mood, which pissed Guy off to no end.
We got back to the guest house late, and after watching a movie, the sky was beginning to lighten. I went outside for a smoke and was amused to see that Bob was lying on the front patio on a mattress with nothing covering him but a sheet and an empty box of Marlboro’s. I decided to go for a walk.
It’s amazing how quickly the bush seems to close around you when you walk down a footpath in Mozambique. After 100 meters, I realised I couldn’t see a single person or house. I was surrounded by long grass and thorn bushes. And, quite irrationally, I felt very scared and alone. It really did feel like a large predator might pounce on me from the long grass at any second. Later, I brought Toni with me along the same path and she can attest to this. I kept going, because it seemed like an interesting idea, and I needed to purge the ill feelings I had towards Guy after he got angry with me. The footpath I was following came to what can only be described as a gloomy hole in the undergrowth. I peered in, unable to believe that this was really the path. Eventually I plucked up the courage and levered myself in. It was like a scene change from “Big Fish”. In one step I had gone from bight sunlit savannah into a gloomy forest-like tunnel. It was angled steeply downwards, completely covered by vegetation. Gnarled roots stuck out from the soil. At any second I expected to walk into a gigantic spider’s web and then be consumed, whole. It really was quite a freaky experience, and it took a couple of minutes to poke my way through. It was with great relief that I stepped into the sunlight, and then with surprise that I realised I was on a small farm. I could hear the sea in the distance ahead of me, so I followed the foot path as it meandered directly through the farm and into a thicket of trees on the other side. I walked down another hill, and then I was confronted by a stream, bridged with a rather shaky wooden structure. It creaked as I carefully stepped across, while silently praying that it wouldn’t collapse under my weight. I walked up another hill and suddenly I was confronted with a large main road, running perpendicular to my footpath. I could still hear the sea, and it sounded like it was just behind the next row of trees. I started walking down the main road, and then stopped, realising with sinking dread that I hadn’t being paying all that careful attention to the route that I was walking. I also realised that I was in a foreign country where no one understands English, and worst of all, I didn’t even know where I was staying. Not good. I mentally retraced my steps, hoping to reinforce the route home. It might have been prudent to turn back then, but it seemed that I was so close to the sea, there was no harm just going a little further.
The sea was not behind the next line of trees. Instead I found a park with a neatly trimmed hedge and a set of broken swings. I walked through the park and out the other side. Suddenly, once again, I was back in the African bush, peering into the long grass wondering if a lion lay in wait. I could still hear the sea just ahead, but at this point I began to wonder if perhaps I was hallucinating. It seemed that the entire walk thus far had a very surreal quality to it. I seriously considered turning back, but then I decided to go just a little further. 50 meters later I passed a line of palm trees and I was confronted with the sea (well, technically I was looking at a really big lagoon – this piece of sea was semi-enclosed by a ring of low hills). The water was deathly still, the surface smooth as a pane of glass. I could straight through the water to the bottom of the lagoon. Just then, the first rays of sunlight peeked over the distant hills, shafting their way across the lagoon. Soon, a perfectly straight line of fire ran from the rising sun, across the water and straight to me.
It was quite a spiritual experience. I sat there for a long time, perfectly at peace, just thinking about my life. Eventually I rose and picked my way home. I only got lost twice.
We casually cruised through the remainder of the holiday, lying on the beach, soaking up the sun and alcohol in equal portions, and occasionally frolicking in the sea. All too soon it was time to go home.
The border post did not fail to dismay us on the return journey. Before we had even sighted the border, we got stuck in a traffic jam. As cars began driving down the wrong side of the road in attempt to jump the queue, the road soon went from one lane of standstill traffic, to two, to three and finally four. The poor cars going into Mozambique had to drive on the dirt off the side of the road to get past. Some locals came past selling beer from a cooler box. I’m always heartened to see a hopeless situation turned into a business opportunity. Pity I don’t drink beer.
Eventually we got through the border post after having to stomp our feet in a black filthy ooze in a bucket. Supposedly this was to stop foot and mouth disease, something I didn’t realise was carried on the soles of one’s shoes.
And then, finally, we were back in South Africa. I’ll miss Mozambique, and I think I’ll definitely return again in the future.