Thursday, February 2, 2012

Paradise Lost (Mozambique Part 1)

Mozambique has been at the top of the list of countries I wanted to travel to ever since I first got to Botswana. Volunteers from the previous group would return from trips and share stories and pictures of time spent relaxing on beautiful, tropic-like beaches and eating fresh seafood. I craved a vacation where I could sit on a nice beach with a cold drink, eat fresh seafood, and just relax. 

The problem with a trip to Mozambique is that it is a bit tricky to sort out the logistics of getting there. Mozambique requires that all Americans get a visa before entering the country. To get this visa, I had to physically appear at the Mozambique Embassy and pay them for the privilege of entering their country. It was no small feat working out how to get down to the capital and it was quite costly. 

Once the visa issues were sorted out, we began to work on the travel plans. Getting to Mozambique on my budget involves several buses and dozens of hours worth of bus travel. From my house to the town we wanted to go to in Mozambique, would mean 4 different buses and cover a distance of 1,900km (1,180mi) one way. I definitely looked forward to the destination, just not the journey. 

The journey actually turned out to be for the most part uneventful. We had an 8 hour layover (if there is such a thing for bus travel) in Johannesburg. The bus depot there is not in a safe area so we jumped a bus to a suburb called Sandton. There is a big mall there and we figured we could find something there to keep entertained. I felt like a fish out of water in the mall. All around me were chic designer stores selling things for more than my monthly stipend and very well dressed people whisked by me with their shopping bags. So here I was, standing in one of the poshest areas of the city wearing a plain t shirt and my ragged, beat up, and stained khaki shorts. I was definitely out of my element. 

After killing time at the mall, we got on our overnight bus to Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. The bus left at 10:00pm and would arrive in Maputo at 8:00 the next morning. I  reclined the seat as far back as it would go, got comfortable, and then popped a sleeping pill. I managed to not only sleep the whole way there but the attendant had to wake me up when the bus got to the border. We had arrived just before the border opened and were waiting along with other buses, combis, and private vehicles. When the border opened it was a mad rush to get in line and a little chaotic. 

We passed through the border without any hassles and continued into the city. We found our hostel, dropped our bags, and set out to explore the city. Maputo is a very large city that seems to be crumbling right before your eyes. All around there are architectural reminders of its time as a Portuguese colony but also of the country's brutal 16 year civil war.

We found a cool little food place in a back ally that served a dish with shrimp, rice, and salad for under $4. It was the first time I have had shrimp in two years and it was amazing. We also quickly discovered how little English the average Mozambican knows (if they knew any at all). The official language of the country is Portuguese and we were limited to very basic communication and hand gestures.

We went to bed early that night because we had to be up at 5:00 to catch the bus going north to Tofo. We had heard great things about Tofo. It has amazing beaches and is a place where you can find whale sharks. I was especially looking forward to maybe getting the chance to snorkel with a whale shark.

A shuttle came to pick us up the next morning to take us to the bus rank. We got on the bus going to Tofo, paid our fare, and waited while they packed every available inch of space with sacks of rice, various other goods, bags, and people. It was going to be a hot, crowded, and quite uncomfortable ride. I tried to nod off, but couldn't find a comfortable position. About an hour or so out of the capital, We suddenly came up on a large line of trucks and cars on the side of the road. The line stretched easily over a kilometer and people were milling all around the road. The driver drove down to the end of the line and then stopped to ask what was going on. As it turned out, there had been major floods in South Africa and that water had raged down the river into Mozambique. The flood waters had washed out a large section of the road and water was rushing through the gap. This road is the only way to get from the capital to cities in the north. We were pretty much stuck. The driver parked the bus and wandered off. 

Rumors abounded. One was that the road was going to open by noon, another said 2pm. Yet another one was that the road would be knocked out for a month. We ended up sitting and waiting for the better part of 6 hours before the driver decided that we would head back to the capital. Our beach vacation to Tofo was off. Compounding our misery was that the driver had spent a large portion of our fares putting fuel in the bus and could not pay refunds for tickets. They offered to take us again for free the next day. 

We limped back into the capital and tried to figure out our options. There was no way that they were going to fix a 10 meter stretch of road overnight and so we looked through a guidebook for other options. Maputo is in a large bay and does not really have good beaches (raw sewage is dumped directly in as well). I did not want to sit in the capital for the whole vacation. We learned from the guidebook that there is a small island at the mouth of the bay and is only a 3 hours ferry ride away. The guidebook talked about "pristine" beaches and made it out to be quite nice. We decided to give it a shot. It was too late in the night to make reservations anywhere and so we decided that we would just go out there and hope there was some kind of cheap accommodation.

We wanted to get to the docks early because the ferry could leave at any time between 7 and 8:30 based on the tides and winds. We all got up early again and looked for a taxi. There were five of us and to save money we asked the taxi driver if we could all just pile in. (This is not an uncommon occurrence in Botswana. If there is space in a vehicle, they cram people in). The driver didn't have a problem with it and we set off for the docks. While waiting at a traffic light, a police truck passed through the intersection in front of us. The officers caught sight of us and the truck lurched to a stop in the middle of the deserted intersection. Five police officers carrying machine guns got off and directed the taxi to pull over. A police officer approached us and asked to see everyone's passport. It is a law that all visitors must carry their passports at all times and this is commonly checked by police looking for fines or bribes.

The officer then told us that it was against the law to have so many people in a taxi and that he would have to arrest us all. We tried unsuccessfully to argue that the taxi driver should be the one fined or in trouble. Our taxi driver settled low in his seat and just stared down at the pedals. I had a feeling he knew exactly what was going on. The officer again told us to get out of car and that were going to be taken to jail. Someone mentioned that it should just be a fine and the officer then asked how much we were willing to give him as a "fine." One of us offered up some minuscule amount and he quickly raised it to 1,000 Metacais (about $40). He took the cash, got back in the truck with the others, and then they left. It was a total shakedown from start to finish and it was infuriating. (And I would be willing to bet the driver was in on it as well).

In hindsight we should have called his bluff to go to the station or mentioned that we were going to call the US Embassy but we didn't want to miss the ferry. There was only one ferry per day and some days it didn't run at all. Any delay because of the police could potentially mean getting stuck in the capital for a few more days.

Everything with the vacation seemed to be falling apart and now we had basically been robbed by the police. We got on the ferry and hoped the island would be worth seeing.