Guards and the Good Life in Maputo, an Intro do Mozambique

I picked the Goba Mozambique/Swaziland border for a few reasons: I’d heard Mozambique wasn’t a painless entry, that the South African border with them was a nightmare of trucks and touts, and that Goba was actually pretty simple. Stamping out of Swaziland was a breeze. It’s common to get a gate slip at southern African borders that needs to be stamped multiple times at all the steps and then handed to a gate guard. After getting all the stamps, we were stopped at the gate while the guard checked all our paperwork, including my passport and Michigan motorcycle title. Corey explained that Mozambique was a common destination for stolen vehicles, so this was an artifact of their due diligence, which made me feel good about the ordeal.

We were released with our bikes (with my VIN number checked, thank goodness for no mistakes on my title!) and headed to Mozambican customs/immigration. The place was pretty relaxed and chill, and there was nearly no traffic, but things still moved pretty slowly. We filled out some long forms, and eventually were ushered one-by-one into the manager’s office, where we paid, had our photos taken, and had our visas installed. The whole ordeal was pretty simple, but moved at Caribbean-speed. When we had our visas, we bought cheap vehicle insurance from one of three huts across from the immigration building (we split up to spread the business, as they’re all the same price), and headed in.

The Mozambican border condom dispensers were sadly empty, but someone *did* stick a “batteries not included” sticker on one of the dispensers, so that’s nice

The speed limit was abusively slow — 50-80kmh — but the road was decent (except, as I’d learn, where it’s not) and paved. We twisted and turned up and up through tall grass as the ground became increasingly red and sandy. When we reached the top of a pass, we had our first look at the broad green-and-tan Mozambican landscape splayed out before us as we descended down a series of slow-speed switchbacks, careful of our speed from what we’d heard about the police here being sticklers for speed-limits, and also constantly looking for ways to shake down foreigners (though there’s been a recent push to cut-back on that).

We pulled into a town and stopped to get the local currency Metical (the plural is pronounced Meticash, which sounds oddly futuristic). I head to the ATM first while Corey watches the bikes and I proceed to make a fool of myself. There’s two ATM machines and a handful of folks standing around, with one at one of the machines. As I walk towards the ATM, the person using one of them walks away. I look around. No one moves. There’s a security guard off to the side. I look at him and point at the machine, and he gives me the thumbs up. I walk up to the ATM and get cash. I go back to the bikes and Corey asks me if I’d just cut the line. I’m confused, but when he walks up and asks, they point at the end of the “line” of folks (one of the machines was out of money or not working). I felt like a total ass.

Once we were loaded with our daily dose of Meticash (~62 to the dollar, and you can only withdraw 5000 at a time, less than $100US), we set off and stopped at a local pub down the street. I had the first of lots of seafood and one of the decent local beers 2M (insert an offensive joke about how they can’t afford the third one here). Corey had a Mozambican SIM, and let me hop on WiFi to send a message to Matt, the diplomat from the US State Department I’d met on a mountain outside of Nelspruit to see if his offer still stood (I didn’t really expect it would). It was oppressively hot in the mid-afternoon sun as we continued the short ride into Maputo.

City traffic engulfed us as we approached its bounds. There was street-life everywhere, and my first real introduction to the odd vehicle-human dynamic that plays out in Mozambique: the locals just walk into the street, directly at you, violating what I perceive as my vehicular bubble, assuming you won’t alter your course except maybe to get out of their way if there’s any way for you to do so. It’s a bit terrifying. We weaved through busy traffic and ample stoplights, down abroad street with a median choked with cars. Corey was staying with an American via Couchsurfing, and we headed together to his office to collect the keys. Lee, the host, turned out to be from San Jose, CA, and was put up in the Radisson for his job.

Key in hand, we shot down to the high-rent oceanside ‘hood where the Radisson was. Their parking lot was gated, but they let us in without question. Then we grabbed our luggage and walked through the lobby to the elevator. An attendant grabbed a cart and helped us get to Lee’s room, again with no questions about us being there or that we were showing up with things and walking directly into a room without checking in or anything. It seemed clear to both of us that White Privilege is alive and well in Africa. To celebrate, we changed and went directly to the pool, where we were served overpriced beer in actual glass while in the infinity pool overlooking the ocean. Don’t worry, I’m also throwing up in my mouth a little writing that.

I live far too charmed a life…

The Radisson had the first internet I’d had since getting a message, and Matt had gotten back to me to say I had a place to stay! He gave me the address and told me his guard would expect me. I was actually really excited about the prospect of meeting this guy; I’d never met a diplomat before. He wasn’t getting home until 6, so we had some time to hang out, and eventually Corey’s host Lee came back and chatted for a bit before it was time for me to run to my new US-government owned pad in Maputo!

The ride from the Radisson to Matt’s house took me past the Chinese embassy, and lots of nice houses surrounded by walls and electric fence. Guards could be seen hanging around the neighborhood. I pulled up to a gate around 6:30 and a Mozambican security guard sporting a State Department badge met me there. I told him he should be expecting me, and a minute later I could hear Matt’s voice welcoming me in. The gate trundled open and I rolled my bike inside and into a garage next to a landrover. Matt was super welcoming and friendly. He showed me into his tri-level place and a perfectly adorned room to myself including my own full bathroom.

24 hour surveillance brought to me to the American Government!

I brought my soft bags in and we had a glass of wine together before he took me out to a nice dinner at a Brazilian steakhouse. He told me to stay as long as I needed, to use his home as a home base. There was a genuine kindness there that struck me as unique — largely, perhaps due to coming from such a familiar West Coast accent in a foreign land. It was the start of an incredible journey for me, and perhaps, us. Neither of us really knew what we’d signed up for cohabiting. When we met, I’d seen a lone backpacker on a mountain top who seemed kind of like a nerdy hippie. He’d seen the Peace Corp stickers on my top box and presumed a poor kid done with his service attempting to see a bit of the continent. We’d both missed the mark to a degree, but seemingly all for the better.

Matt was kind, intelligent, well-informed, and fascinating in a multitude of ways. I mean, how often does one get to just hang out and chat with a career diplomat from their home country abroad? Hell,¬†any diplomat! He grew up with a foreign service family, including attending high school while living in East Berlin, and had gone on to become a career diplomat, spending more of his time abroad than back home, largely in Africa; he had a set of experiences I’d never ran into from a fellow American.

I stayed with Matt in Maputo for 5 nights. We made dinner together, we went out together, we stayed up late chatting about the world, politics, the human condition, and even sipped whisky in the late hours of the evening while discussing quantum mechanics. Some anecdotes from our time together:

  • We went out on the town, finding a live music venue where we were the only customers. The band dutifully played for us despite the circumstance, the drummer sporting a Michigan State hoodie

  • We went to the Museum of Natural History (Museu de Historia Natural), where we wandered through ridiculous taxidermy, disturbing bottled fetuses, snakes, and various insects, and odd and largely unexplained artwork of a Mozambican slave who became the first non-Japenese samurai in Japan.

  • Matt took me for a ride in his car (where all the plastics are riveted, and all the glass etched in an attempt to prevent theft) through the townships around Maputo. The places were an explosion of activity, spilling over into the streets themselves. Storefronts for shops specializing in a single good (lumber, drain pipe, iron, mufflers, etc.) displayed their wares in the open air, seething masses of people sliding past each other like particles in a liquid.
Photos really don’t do justice to the chaos in these throngs of people
  • We walked down a narrow alley-like street lined in pop-up bars (‘shabeens’ in South African parlance) and stores where I kept me hands close to my pockets. There, I caught my first glimpse of Lord Gin, the cheapest gin in Mozambique at <$2 for a Tetra-Pak 500ml box of the stuff.
  • We visited the tout-infested Fish Market on the coast where we bought a large parrot fish to cook in a curry and later make ceviche out of. It was an intense experience due to the abrasive crowd of folks offering to cook the fish on the beach, a service we weren’t looking for…
Parrot fish
Tiger prawns
  • Went to a funky little art exposition/studio.

I’d arrived on a Thursday, and my errands beyond enjoying Maputo were to check in on a long-stale DRC visa application and get one for Tanzania. Unfortunately, their embassies weren’t conducting visa applications on Friday, so my hands were tied until Monday. Over the weekend, Corey got an invite to attend an advanced rangering course in Kruger back in South Africa and had to head back to South Africa to take the class. It took until Wednesday the 18th before I had a Tanzania visa sorted out (which they got the dates wrong on, but will end up working anyways); I had no more luck than before with my DRC application…

Some notes on Maputo: It’s a big city with a mix of modern and old architecture. Much of the older construction, especially the large-scale residential structures, are a shadow of their former glory. A smattering of old colonial manses in disrepair stick our among those that have been turned into businesses or taken over by rich locals or foreigners. A gleaming new suspension bridge stands half-built in the harbor, part of a large China-backed infrastructure project to Ponta do Ouro in the south. Traffic can be occasionally nightmarish, with motorcycles, tuk tuks, cars, trucks, and buses zooming around every which way through narrow and insufficient streets. Little of the population appears to live near downtown, with the vast majority commuting in from the surrounding townships. A vast moderately-developed coastline makes up one border of the cityscape. A few older high rises sit a couple kilometers from the fewer new ones. In between, a vast complex studded with fortified soldiers houses the President. In the surrounding area lay the land of embassies and guarded homes of diplomats and generals.

When I finally got my Tanzania visa in hand, it was time to bid adieu to my incredible host and head north. As I’d learn to accept, but never really acclimatize to, it was an extremely hot and humid day in Mozambique as I fought the pervasive daytime Maputo traffic on my way out of town. When my path finally took me onto the main north/south highway (the primary artery through the whole of the massively long country), I felt momentarily transported to North Korea; for the first hour or so of my journey, there was basically¬†no traffic on the road at all. The dissonance from what I’d escaped was palpable.

Eventually, the odd quiet of the road was interrupted by people. Endless people. People walking down the road, sitting in the shade under trees, carrying enormous loads of wood or supplies on top of their heads, or herding goats. Small children appeared endlessly along the roadside, frequently in some state of being put to work. When the stick and mud huts weren’t visible, people were. In the few times people weren’t, paths were. The trees were tropical but short. The villages small but pervasive.

The road itself was decent, and traffic was light. I’d pass or be passed by occasional trucks or “chapas” (Toyota minibuses), as well as a handful of bicycles and small Chinese motorcycles. Since my morning had been taken up by consular business with Tanzania and packing my things, I took it easy the first day and turned off the main road just a couple hours from Maputo at Macia, aiming for a small beach town about an hour down a pocked local road: Praia Do Bilene. There was a small campground at one end of the accessible beach where I could stay for a song and a dance, so I checked in and pitched my tent with ample sunlight. A friendly South African tour guide taking a couple around Mozambique (they were staying somewhere fancier) was camped next to me. He’d been guiding tours in southern Africa for ages, and passed on some helpful advice for Mozambique and Tanzania I dutifully wrote down, including recommending the beach/diving town of Zavora up the coast, where he’d be travelling to next.

Not much to complain about on the Mozambican coast

I had dinner at the restaurant attached to the campground and chatted up the locals before heading to the early rest characteristic of camping. The Mefloquine I had begun taking as an anti-malarial had begun to fuck with my sleep, so I awoke early in the morning with a sense that something awful had happened (I very rarely remember my dreams) and couldn’t get back to sleep. Eventually, I decided against staying another day and really getting to know Praia Do Bilene, and instead broke camp and headed towards Zavora, keen to do some diving.

The backtrack to the main road was mostly uneventful. Heading North again, there was an uptick in traffic, automotive, human, and animal. Suddenly, there was no stretch of road without people walking, biking, or motorcycling somewhere in sight. The vegetation had taken a fully tropical appearance, but it was also apparent that there had been significant tree cutting in the area. Hundreds of huge bags of locally produced charcoal studded the side of the road, allowing no mystery for where the larger trees had gone.

The speed limit alternated between 80 and 50km/hr, seemingly at random. Signage was sporadic at best. There were small villages everywhere, and a number of larger towns, the largest being Xai Xai, which has a popular beach I skipped past. I stopped in the small town of Chidenguele and found a little roadside bar off the main highway to get a cold drink (it was blazingly hot, as per usual) and met a friendly family and the Polish girlfriend of one smartly dressed member. After cooling down, I proceeded the rest of the way to the tiny turnoff from the main highway to head to Zavora.

It was immediately clear from the turn that I was heading for the infamously difficult sand of the Mozambican coast. I immediately began slowly and deliberately picking my way through deep sandy ruts on the one-lane road through the jungle. The ever-present folks on the side of the road would stop and watch me pass as my front tire pitched back and forth whenever its meager purchase failed. The 17km of pure sand took a solid 45 minutes to navigate, my limbs and clutch straining in the heat. I arrived at the foot of a giant sand dune with sweat pouring in rivers from my helmet, and a helpful local pointed up the impossibly deep sand of the dune to the top where one of the very few lodges, and the attached dive shop, were located. Once again, I had to gun the engine and rely on muscle memory to rapidly guide the careening bike to the top. I was thankful to find a spot of gravel at the top where I could put the bike on its stand without the kickstand just disappearing into the soft earth.

Like so often, I wasn’t willing to stop to take photos when things were at their worse, but take my word…

Zavora Lodge sat on a sandy dune overlooking the ocean. The wind howled at the bar/restaurant with attached deck. I checked in and got details on the diving, which they weren’t sure was going to be happening the next day due to the weather. Gazing at the roiling ocean below, I could understand the sentiment. I ate a big, well-deserved dinner and slunk off to bed to the sound of waves crashing outside my room.