Archive for November, 2007

The ideal traveler

November 30, 2007

Ideally the traveler in Africa wants to maintain a wad of cash apportioned between his pockets. It should be enough to buy what he needs, since he can rarely use a credit card, but not more than he’d be comfortable having stolen. It should be in small bills because shops and vendors are often unwilling or unable to make change. He would have a Visa card because they’re more widely accepted at ATMs and many of those don’t work. Somehow, this would not become a full time job.




Similarly he would carry around two cell phones because some phones just won’t call some numbers or receive calls from others and he knows better than to throw a fit or expect that he’ll ever get a good explanation. He brings a book when he goes to use the Internet and several when he waits for a plane. The less than ideal traveler finds himself quite fond of modern conveniences, easily accessed. He is very grateful for The Economist. More importantly when things go wrong the ideal traveler tries to remember how lucky he is and how easy things are for him compared with the people who live here.



I’m heading out into the bush for a few days. Instead of things that don’t work, there just won’t be anything. It will be a welcome change.


Up the coast, part 2

November 27, 2007

The big Toyota Landcruiser swung by around 12:30 and I jumped into the passenger seat. We drove around Mocimba picking up the other local fares, about eight of them. At some of the stops, the driver just got out to wake someone who was sleeping on the ground and chat for a while. Around 2 a.m. another driver came aboard and we left town.

The paved road soon ended and we jounced along a dirt path, rippled like a frozen sea. Sometimes the driver had to turn off it to avoid cones of earth as big as the ones in motocross rallies. They were soft though. I know, because we hit a few of them. There were no streetlights of course but between the headlights and the moon, almost strong enough to read by, it was possible to see the forest getting denser. At one point a hyena jumped in front of the vehicle and the driver had to swerve. We made good time, hindered only by the front left tire which was slightly out of line. Occasionally the driver or one of his assistants got out to give it a few kicks.

We passed Palma, a village about 30 miles from the border, and kept moving. As the sky began to brighten we stopped in a tiny village where the people tried to change money. Four or five miles later we reached a reedy swamp probably fifty yards across. The water didn’t appear deep but the mud was pitch black and smelly. There was no way around it.

The driver took a deep breath and revved the engine. The beast plunged in. Water splashed up mightily just like in an SUV commercial. The vehicle was less than a car length from the far shore when the wheels started spinning and the driver cut the engine. The two assistants—‘Why did he need two’ I had wondered?’– rolled up their jeans and jumped into the muck. (Lucky for them they hadn’t read the Lonely Planet’s description of Schistosomiasis (Bilharzia), a disorder caused by tiny worms living in stagnant water. They burrow through the skin and, once home free in the lower reaches of the digestive system cause symptoms too nauseating to even type.)

From the bank, a woman in a headscarf walking a goat on a leash looked on with what I took to be bemusement. Nearby a tube of muscle in the form of a shirtless teenager sliced his machete into the sandy bank and waded in. Duly emasculated, the other passengers and I walked to shore via a mud island.

To just start pushing would have been an insult to this mud. Instead, the crew began digging under the wheels and wedged logs below the tires to build a track. They then stacked rocks beside the wheels. With the rock piles set up as fulcrums the boys found more logs and, sticking one end below a knob on the hubcap and hanging on the other they managed to lift the tires high enough to shove rocks beneath them. It was then time to start pushing. After a few attempts the Landcruiser emerged triumphant. The teenager who mastermuscled the operation received $2 for his effort.

At the Mozambique border post, a mud building without any sign of a computer, the offical stamped our passports and we returned to the car. From there it was another few kilometers to the Rovuma River which forms the border between the countries. There aren’t any bridges so passengers pay an extortionate youth gang to ferry them across in rickety motorboats. On the other side a few more land cruisers were waiting. A chaotic scene ensued as the drivers and their second’s and third’s scrambled for passengers, especially, if I may say so, the short mzungu.

A Tanzanian visa is supposed to cost $50 cash but as the immigration man informed me “The rules have changed.” Ah, yes. So it was $100. It was still well before noon when we arrived in Mtwara, the first large town in Tanzania. I found a room and booked a flight for Dar Es Salaam.

Up the coast, part 1

November 26, 2007

Like millions of Americans I spent Thanksgiving weekend on the road. To get a feel for African travel I picked a route from Nampula to Mtwara, in southeastern Tanzania. The night before leaving was Thanksgiving and a few Americans fortified me with a marvelous potluck. During a blackout, they threw a  tour de force candlelight sit-down for thirty or so internationals. Then I returned to my host’s apartment and set the alarm for 3:45.

For reasons unclear, almost all the long distance busses in Mozambique leave at five in the morning. The blackout had thwarted my plan to buy a ticket the day before so it was imperative to arrive at the station at four. Though all the day’s busses would depart in an hour a long line had assembled there was a delay and the ticket window didn’t open until four thirty, around sunrise. The window was smaller than a sheet of paper. Several feet behind it, a functionary sat at a desk with a row of receipt books, each for a different destination. He assumes a leisurely pace, taking his time counting out change and stamping each ticket a few times.

The bus was old and cramped, five hard non-reclining seats and an aisle across each row. Pretty soon, passengers would be standing. Promptly, in a big cloud of dust the busses left the station in a herd before turning their separate directions.  Nobody read or listened to headphones; they dozed or watched the villages pass. Women tended to their babies. They all had babies. After a few hours the scenery seemed like hypnotic stock footage. Villlages, scrubland, villages, bush, villages. For fertilizer the farmers use ash from burnt trees and a constant acrid smell hung in the air.

The excitement came when we stopped in the larger villages and hawkers swarmed the bus. Mostly they sold fruit and drinks and snacks, not to mention watches and sunglasses, but over the next two days I saw splints of smoked fish, bundles of cassava, clear plastic tubes filled with grain and live chickens. The more aggressive among them banged bottles on the windows or attached boxes to poles holding their goods up to inspection. After nine hours or so we reached Pemba, a gritty little beach town where a number of South Africans are planting luxury resorts. In a few years it should be a hot destination for Europeans who like their sand white and their servers black. Normally a foreigner on my route would have spent a few days in Pemba recharging but unfortunately I was in a hurry. After a short night in a camp group I woke up at 3:45 and caught the bus to Mocimba de Praia, the last large town before Tanzania border. The roads were bumpier but, wow, eight hours later we arrived.

Another beach town, Mocimba made Pemba look like Cap d’Antibes. The town is a couple blocks of derelict buildings surrounded by tiny earthen homes. Busses can’t maneuver the road to the border so I wandered around in search of a ride. It didn’t take long. A guy approached me and said his brother was leaving in a 4×4 at midnight. With the sun setting, I returned to my powerless, waterless room and took a nap.

Are we poor yet?

November 26, 2007

We’ve all seen the pictures of babies with the swollen bellies and the bulging eyes. But most poverty isn’t as arresting or homogenous.

Take the unremarkable city of Nampula, the largest in a poor country’s poorest region. In Nampula many of the children and teenagers wear t-shirts and shorts donated from America. The popular teenagers have Yankee caps or European soccer jerseys. The most common job for men seems to be hawking cell phone airtime on street corners. For women it’s selling vegetables and trinkets on the sidewalks. Nonetheless there’s enough money floating around to support a small supermarket as well as gas stations and cell phone towers. In the city a visitor can find a series of tubes resembling the Internet and a decent cup of coffee. The city is much more lacking in areas where a government would normally have some role. So, electricity and water supplies are fickle, garbage collection didn’t seem to exist and a cop who tried to extort me then asked if I’d buy him something to eat. He followed me into a store and picked out some juice and cookies. I obliged him.

One day an NGO took me out to the country to visit one of its projects. A few kilometers beyond the city, all traces of urban life disappeared. Amid rock formations and red dirt anthills sticking eight feet out of the ground, peasants live in mud huts, the thatch roofs not as tidy as they look on National Geographic. A few Churches, mosques and government buildings were built from solid materials but for the most part it was a world of straw, mud and bamboo. Most of the villages boasted a water pump but not indoor plumbing. The collective toilets are holes in the ground surrounded by woven thatch or bamboo screens. Most of these villages don’t have power. Cassava is the staple and they grow it, The pinwheel-leafed plants sprout in gardens at the side of the road. Rice, my guide said, is for “special occasions.” Bananas and papaya trees help to supplement the diet.

In these villages the men often dress in discarded t-shirts and shorts adorned with incongruous logos: a dead drunk Senor Frog or “MIAMI” written in neon. It’s a wonder the women talk to them. They wear colorful wraps and look regal balancing water jugs and big bundles of sticks on their heads. Most of them carry babies in slings on their back. Beside the not-bad road were markets where peasants sold vegetables and a couple of live chickens. For sale I found chili peppers, little ovoid tomatoes and big meaty mushrooms, a pound of which would cost a their monthly earnings at Dean & DeLuca. Finding a Coke or a pack of cigarettes wouldn’t be a problem in these parts. I spotted a few motorcycles and almost no cars in the villages.

            After about two hours we turned off the road onto a dirt track and followed it for a few bouncy kilometers. NGO projects are never on the main road. In the settlement we reached the children and adults had a few filthy rags, more draped than worn. Their t-shirts had large holes in the shoulders, as if they were hand me downs from Nampula. The only solid looking residence was a hutch for a few goats, part of the organization’s work.

A cinderblock cube elevated slightly above the ground held the village cassava supply. The peeled white tubers smelled cool and starchy and not like anything you’d want to eat for every meal, even ground into flour or an appetizing paste. I didn’t see any shops or a market or a bicycle for getting to them. No cell phone reception either. The railroad passes nearby but it brings nothing but AIDS. Compared with the main road, the people didn’t look healthy. They had furrowed faces and bad posture. With little else going on they were happy to indulge my questions. We sat under a thatched roof next to the cassava room and fifteen or twenty children watched over our conversation. As I was leaving the farmers presented me with a bag of nuts for the ride back.


November 22, 2007

One evening in Nampula I was sitting at the desk in my room. The sun had set hours ago but sweat was beading up on my forehead and dripping onto the floor. I smelled…alive. In the kitchen a woman breast fed her baby and drank beer out of a metal cup. She was chatting with other women as they picked at chopped Vienna sausages, hot dogs served cold, straight from the can. Four or five toddlers provided the noise. The women ladled glutinous hunks of white porridge into plastic containers to save for tomorrow.

My host’s boyfriend invited me on a walk. We sat on a wall in the hot breeze talking about cars and women and work. Mainly I listened, catching about two thirds of what he said. He doesn’t like his boss at the scrap metal salvage company. He likes his girlfriend, “too much,” an endearing mistranslation. He likes fast cars and Africa. He’d like to visit America but only to see a McDonald’s and eat pizza. America could accomodate him, I said. Out in the street motorcycles revved past.


Malaria Prevention

November 20, 2007

Malaria is a fickle sickness. Some strains kill people when left untreated, (a few kill people when treated) more often it’s a chronic excuse to be late for work. I confess to being quite uptight in my measures against it. I’ll dine out on it for years if the wrong mosquito dines out on me but this is one anecdote I could do without telling. Especially because there wouldn’t be much to regale …Um, I lay in bed for a week aching and trembling with a fever of 104. No one helped me scrounge around for decent DVDs and chicken soup.


No single measure is absolutely effective but I don’t think any of it is quackery either. Even so the regimen may sound a bit bizarre:


–Malaria tablets, the antibiotics, not the ones that drive people insane. Take one daily in malarial zones and for four weeks after leaving. I suspect these pills are also fighting off bacteria in the water. Marvelous pills.

–Deet. The real bug stuff. It can melt some types of plastic. Applied frequently.

–Tonic water, containing quinine, best taken with gin and lime.

–A mosquito net to sleep under. In this part of the world one often finds them hanging from the ceiling.

–Light colored long sleeved shirts. Pants, of course.

–A fan pointed at the bed at night. Apparently mosquitoes can’t direct themselves in a strong current of air.

–A series of pills to be taken over five days if I actually get it.


All I need now is a praying mantis to leash to the bedpost.

15º 06´ S

November 19, 2007

I´m in northern Mozambique doing some agriculture reporting and staying with a cool woman from New Jersey who has lived here for several years. My sister met her on a plane and she´s graciously allowed me to crash at her apartment for a few days. WIth a little luck I´ll be able to talk her into letting me cook a tropical Thanksgiving dinner. (Any recipe ideas?)  This is Nampula, the largest city in Mozambique´s remote north. This close to the equator, the sun is compelling.


Overland travel is the best way to see anywhere, especially Africa but in this case I balked at a 400 or so mile drive that would have taken 40 hours. The alternative was Air Corridor, Mozambique´s second best airline. The flight was delayed four hours but everyone was very relaxed about it. The airline didn´t bother to explain and no was whined. Maybe they have taken the bus. It wasn´t a bad trip, a taste of what flying must have been like in the sixties or seventies. Spectators gathered on a balcony to watch the planes take off. No one asked to see my ID and there was no line at the security checkpoint.


As you gather things in Mozambique are usually less than efficient but it´s freeing. Sure getting the Internet to behave is like going to war but if you ask nicely and don´t make fusses people are receptive, friendly and uninterested in telling you what to do.

My host likes to have guests. Among the other people living with her are a mother with two young kids and a twenty something artist. He knocked on my door last night wanting to show me something. I turned the handle but the door wouldn´t move. Then he turned it slowly from the outside. The latch caught and the door opened. He demonstrated a few times how to turn a doorknob in Mozambique, you do it slowly. The door opened for him every time. Is it corny to throw this up as an analogy?

In which I get robbed

November 16, 2007

If any of you read about me talking my way out of a ticket and thought ‘Wow he’s pretty slick,’ you might want to reconsider. Yesterday I got mugged with a water bottle. I was walking near the Ministry of Defense on a road with many cars but minimal foot traffic.  There was a guy maybe 20 feet behind me and his footsteps were getting faster. Something like this has happened every day of this trip so I sped up stride. The footsteps behind me continued to speed up and I felt a small circle push into the back left of my neck.

Maputo is more relaxed than Jo’Burg or Cape Town. Even so a friend once told me people get killed for their cell phones. The guy started pulling my daypack off and shouting at me in Portuguese. I let him take it and then saw him. He wasn’t much bigger than me and he carried a water bottle with one of those nipple tops, like on the energy drinks. “Wait, that’s a water bottle,” I was confused. “Does he have AIDS in it? Is there a needle?” He demanded my phone and then it occurred to him that I’d have a wallet and he demanded that too before making his escape running up a steep knoll. He got a bit of money and not much else with street value. I didn’t lose anything irreplaceable.

I soon passed a restaurant and, never without a stupid scheme, thought it might be possible to buy back a few of things he stole. I asked the maitre d’ to send a text message to my phone offering cash. He humored me.

A few plainclothes cops were eating and inevitably I was soon in the back of their car driving around looking for the mugger. I felt like an ass as they pointed to every guy with a blue shirt or black bag. “Is that him? Is that him?” After a few laps we drove around to the station to fill out a report. A uniformed officer wrote out a paragraph in a large lined composition book. Through a translator he asked questions like the model of my phone, where I’m staying and my parents’ names (?). They told me to return this morning to finish off the paper work. I showed up but they didn’t have power and told me to come back again tomorrow.

Riding in minitaxis

November 14, 2007

In Maputo I’ve called a truce with the mini-taxis. They’re old vehicles about the size of vans with three or four rows of benches, not including the front seat, and a sliding door on the left side. At the end of the first three rows is a folding seat covering the aisle. A ride costs 5 meticals (pronounced sorta like “meta-cash”) about 20 cents and you can fit twenty-three people in one, easy.  

From the outside they look like battered up vans. On the inside their conditions vary. Some are fully upholstered while others have nothing covering the guts of the doors so it’s possible to see the mechanics of the window cranks and door locks. I was recently in what must be called the chump seat, the folding seat by the sliding door and had to dismount every block to let the people on and off. The conductor who takes people money and barks at pedestrians was in front of me facing backwards splayed against the shotgun seat. I had my arm on the door and heard a crack as the top part of the sliding door came out of its track. This phased the conductor not at all. He didn’t even give me a look. But for the next few stops he looped his arm through the window with his palm on the roof ensuring the door didn’t fall off before the end of the line. Then he might take a look and jam it back onto the track as he’s done many times before.


The fish market

November 14, 2007

After two and a half months I was bored with the food in South Africa. Sure there were a few got-to- try-it specialties like kudu and impala but I’m not a discriminating enough carnivore to know the difference between an antelope and plain old venison. And in South Africa, as is sometimes said of America, food is more fuel than infatuation. (One exception: well-off South Africans like to discuss wine.)


So it was quite pleasant to visit the Maputo fish market. A few counters under a series of tarps, it’s too small to be held up as a window into the national mind, but too extensive to just be a tourist attraction. It probably supplies the city’s restaurants. The fishmongers slapped the day’s catch on wooden counters, hawking lots of generic looking but large and healthy fish, their eyes still clear.  One stall had half a barracuda, the end with the teeth. Invertebrates were stored in big Styrofoam tubs: fat foot long tiger prawns and gallons of pinkish beige octopi. Piled on top of each other they looked like pudding. One woman offered up crabs with shells as big as my face, still filthy with sea-gunk. I jumped when she held it out to me and it snapped. Flies buzzed on everything.


It can be satisfying when something looks like you expect it will. On the side of a dusty road, a block from the beach, this looked like an African fish market. The hard sell was in effect but unnecessary. I bought a few tiger prawns (not as cheap as you’d think) and a squid and they dropped my catch of the day naked into a plastic shopping bag. A woman escorted me to a restaurant behind the market and they fried the beasts, serving them with rice and a salad of tomatoes and cucumber. A tasty meal.