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Taking the road less traveled Spending a year in five continents to embrace my "inner turtle", to live simply, and to avoid being shark bait!

Solo traveling in Africa

MOZAMBIQUE | Sunday, 1 April 2012 | Views [1172]

Sunset as viewed from my hotel room

Sunset as viewed from my hotel room

I've spent the last three days visiting Maputo, Mozambique's capital city.  My volunteer program will be in Tofo in Inhambane Province, 470 km away from Maputo.  I figure I probably wouldn't travel this far from Tofo during my stay here, so I arrived a few days before the program start to check out the city.  It's my first time traveling solo in Africa, lots to learn!

I flew from HK to Singapore to Johannesburg, which is a major hub for flights within the African continent.  From Joburg I had a separate ticket on another airline to Maputo.  When I tried to check-in, the agent said my reservation didn't exist and told me to see Sales; there was a queue of at least 40 people by then with only 4 agents working, and after resolving the reservation issue, I had to get back in queue to check-in.  Goodbye - efficiency of HK, hello - "make sure you bring your patience" Africa!

A little background on Mozambique:  it is a former Portuguese colony, gained independence in 1974, and was subsequently embroiled in civil war for the next 15 years.  The last 20 years have seen relative peace, and the country technically holds multi-party elections, but only one party, Frelimo, has had a President and majority of the Parliament elected.  The country is about three times the size of UK, extends for 2,500 km along the east coast of Africa, and neighbors Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Swaziland.  Portuguese is the official language, although only 3% of the population speaks it fluently; the rest may speak one of over 40 indigenous languages.

My flight arrived amidst a thunderstorm.  A hotel shuttle picked me up, and my first introduction to the country was serious flooding on the streets.  Vehicles had to slow way down, and people were walking on the sidewalk with water up to their knees.  As we got closer to the city center, the flooding lessened so I was relieved.  This was supposed to be the end of rainy season too. 

My hotel is in a neighborhood named Baixa, which appeared to consist mainly of government offices and some residential buildings.  I explored it on foot one day, and boy was it an experience.  As soon as I stepped out of the hotel, I realized I did not dress appropriately; since it was very hot (33 degrees Celsius), I wore a t-shirt and shorts.  Well, I recalled at that moment from guidebooks on Africa that even in a modern city like Maputo, women never wear shorts; they wear either long pants or dresses or skirts, and the dresses or skirts are at least knee length.  So here I was, Chinese tourist in Africa, already hopelessly sticking out, and wearing the wrong apparel.  I was a bit self conscious but sucked it up; it was way too hot for long pants, and I was not about to put on a dress (I later compromised by wearing capri pants).  I walked around the neighborhood by following my guidebook's recommended route; the author must noticed a lot more than I, because I finished the walk in an hour (he estimated two).  Then again, I didn't take the time to roam around the old "historic" buildings or museums; most of them were a bit sad looking and run-down.  There were a lot of people just hanging or lying around; I later read the unemployment rate is around 60%.  There were a lot of peddlers selling everything from sunglasses to belts to bootlegged CDs (Whitney Houston was a favorite).  The streets were quite dirty and not all were paved.  One really odd thing I noticed was that the major streets in this neighborhood were named after famous dictators or Communist leaders such as Karl Marx, Lenin, Mao Sze Tung, and Ho Chi Minh.  There was a statue of Mozambique's first President, Samora Machel, on the street with the same name; it was a gift from North Korea's Kim Il-Sung and looked eerily like Fidel Castro.  Traffic wasn't so bad, although as a pedestrian, you had to be bold and cross when you can.  I got a lot of strange stares and some haggling, but I suspected both were done out of curiosity instead of anything malicious.  The entire time, even though I wasn't walking that fast, sweat was dripping down my back and forehead, and this is middle of autumn!

The next day I roamed another neighborhood, Polana, and it was quite different.  This neighborhood consists mostly of businesses and middle class residences, and the streets are nicely lined with trees.  There are several main avenues with businesses, shops, and restaurants.  I noticed many tourists and expats in this neighborhood.  How so?  Look for the Irish/British pub with football playing on the TV or the fancy coffee shop.  I stumbled onto a street that had a continuous view of the the Indian Ocean coastline; it was a rainy and cool day, so the ocean looked gray with strong currents.  I passed by a park and heard some a cappella singing; turns out it was a wedding ceremony, and the guests were singing and dancing as they marched behind the bride and groom to the ceremony.  I recalled the guidebook said to look for and "crash" a local wedding, and lucky me, there were three weddings going on at the park!  The singing and dancing really added to the joy of the occasion, and everyone was dressed impeccably.  i kept walking through the residential neighborhood, not realizing i had reached the edge of the Presidential Palace.  There was no sign, and it was simply part of the residential area, except there were guards standing outside the gate carrying rifles.  The guards told me to turn around, but I didn't know how to get around it to where I wanted to go, so I played dumb (well, I was) and showed them my map to ask how to get to my destination.  They pointed me to the previous road and to simply follow it, which I did except it took me to the other end of the Palace, and more guards shooed me away from the main road.  I thought back later and realized what I tried to do was like trying to walk through the White House to the other side of the street, good thing I looked naive and harmless!

Polana neighborhood is home to one of Maputo's most luxurious hotel, the Polana Serena.  The front of the hotel reminded me of the famous Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town; turned out the same architect designed both.  It is situated at a cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean.  The lobby was not bad, but the swimming pool in the back was simply stunning.  I got to "crash" another wedding being held at the hotel (must have been expensive!)  It was nice to see that regardless of ethnicity or nation, some things are simply universal and cross-culture, like wedding celebrations with family and friends, and women wearing ill-fitting dresses!

While in Polana, I discovered a small road that also hugged the coastline and had nothing but these beautiful oceanfront homes with guards out front.  They reminded me of homes in Sausalito or Tiburon that had floor to ceiling windows and breathtaking ocean views.  Turns out many of these were homes to foreign ambassadors such as Sweden, Finland, and the UK.  What an assignment!  There was one home I didn't dare get too close to see the plaque out front nor to take a photo (there were at least four guards sitting around), but it was gorgeous, windows all the way around, and enormous in size.  I wonder which country has the money for that house?

One problem I see repeatedly at growing cities like Maputo is the serious lack of infrastructure and basic citizen needs, such as paved roads, reliable public transportation, and their general maintenance.  I see lots of cranes and billboards advertising luxury high-rise apartments, hotels, and new office buildings, yet they are all situated on a street that was unpaved, full of dirt and piles of litter.  As a result, once these buildings are completed, only that section of the road will be brand spanking new and maintained, and there will be a gate to separate that building from the outside, complete with guards at the gate.  I'm no expert, but it seems the entire surrounding needs to be up-leveled before new construction can start, or it'll end up creating more separation between the "new, sanitized" community and the "historic, decrepit" one.

I hope to pick up some Portuguese on this trip, certainly more than the two Thai words I learned in Koh Tao.  So far I've gotten by through finger-pointing, throwing out the few Spanish words I know, or raising my voice to repeat words in English (funny how do people do that?)

Tags: maputo, mozambique, polana serena

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