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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!

Midterm Report

MOZAMBIQUE | Tuesday, 1 May 2012 | Views [1069]

I'm above the whale shark taking the photo, see how big it is!

I'm above the whale shark taking the photo, see how big it is!

African time may seem to crawl, but in the blink of an eye, my African journey is halfway over, and most volunteers who started with me have left. Good times really pass by quickly.

The second half of April was a routine of alternating dives and ocean safaris, twice of each per week. On several occasions, ocean safaris were cancelled due to poor weather and ocean condition: lots of wind thus very choppy ocean state, which would make for an extremely rough boat ride and difficulty in spotting whale sharks. Most ocean safaris were cancelled just hours or even minutes before start time; when that happened, we would simply trot back to the house (thank goodness for a 1-minute "commute" by foot) and resumed playing cards, data entry, or headed to the beach (even when it was windy, the sun would still be out so it was pleasant beach weather). Better yet, the cancelled ocean safari would be substituted by an additional dive, which I personally prefer.

To date, I've had over a dozen dives and half as many ocean safaris. The dives just keep getting better and better; not because there are manta rays and turtles and other megafauna sightings every time, but simply because I'm gaining more experience as a diver, can adjust to my surrounding quicker, and am learning the different kinds of fish so I know and can name a few by sight. I have not yet mastered the negative entry to the point where I can start swimming downwards upon entry, but I can orient quicker now, can pause and right myself to equalize my ears, then resume the descend immediately. A few dives stuck to my mind in April: a shallow dive at Salon (less than 18m deep) where I spotted my first octopus (it was hiding but its huge tentacles were moving) and oriental sweetlips (what a name for a fish! Look it up in Google image, this fish looks like it's confused and doesn't know if it wants to be striped or spotted, so it has both in black and white, looks awesome); a deep dive at Manta Reef with a huge school of kingfish swimming tightly in a cylinder-shape, and when one of them wanted to join, it paused and waited for a spot to open, like humans at a revolving door; a deep dive at Sherwood Forest, a beautiful site with lots of green tree corals (they really look trees in a dense forest) adorned by large schools of yellow snappers, by far the most "scenic" site I've seen; and a deep dive at Rob's Bottom where we spotted the elusive bowmouth guitar ray, twice! It was magnificent, very "ancient" looking as though it belongs to the dinosauric times.

Non-working hours were filled with new activities. Vegan cooking is still a common pastime (experimented with a coconut-pineapple cupcake for two volunteers' birthday, which we appropriately nicknamed the "pina colada" cake), and I have new favorite recipes such as falafel (takes a bit of time but worthwhile). Played beach volleyball a few times and really enjoyed it, despite the bruised wrists afterwards (I watched a lot of beach volleyball on TV before and thought I really could play). Watched sunrise at 5:45 from the beach, then watched the fishermen launched their small wooden rowboats to start their day. And apparently I can cut hair! Not sure how it started. I was chatting with N and she commented she hasn't had a haircut in almost two months since her trip to Zambia; I mentioned I cut a roommate's hair once back in college. Somehow that turned into me cutting her hair hours later, and it was fun! She had short, stiff blonde hair that if you "scrambled" with your hand, they would somehow end up in a disheveled but cool look. Armed with just a pair of kitchen shears, a few clips, a pocket-sized mirror, and N's total trust in me (oh youth!), I cut in the same manner as my stylists, or at least I pretended. I shortened her hair all around so her ears showed and bangs were no longer in her eyes; frankly I thought it was not a bad cut at all, and N was quite happy with it. When others saw her haircut, two other volunteers also asked me to cut their hair, wow! I really had no idea I could do this! I cut V's hair a week later (her hair was softer and wavy so it was slightly harder to control), and S's hair after (used a trimmer on him, so afraid I'd give him a bald spot). All in all, three satisfied customers, and perhaps a new side job for me in the future. Free haircuts in exchange for adopting a whale shark perhaps?!

We also explored beyond Tofo Beach and Inhambane to Barra Beach, a beach north of Tofo. There's no direct chapa between Tofo and Barra, would need to change routes. We boarded the chapa from Tofo, alighted at an interchange, and started walking towards Barra, hoping to flag a chapa en route. The sun was blazing and there was absolutely no shade; after about 1 km, an empty chapa appeared, thank goodness! The beach at Barra was huge and almost completely empty, except for a handful of tourists playing volleyball. We found shade under a few wooden umbrellas and took in the scenery, a practically empty beach with only the six of us, and a lot less peddlers walking by to sell us coconuts, cashew nuts, bracelets or sarong. We rented two body boards and tried body surfing, think I prefer the bigger surfboard instead. There is no "center" at Barra, not even a single market; we walked the length of the beach and saw only full-service accommodations with on-site restaurants and dive schools, a very different feel from Tofo. There was a sign selling real estate on the beach: beachfront homes with modern amenities within a gated area for US$250,000; I wonder who is the target market?? We left close to sun down, and waited a while with a few locals for a chapa, but none came. Finally a pickup truck already half-full of people sitting in the bed stopped, and the waiting locals climbed onboard; the six of us looked at each other, not sure what to do, then the driver waved to us, so we thought we better get on or it'd become dark soon. Boy was it an experience! There were 16 people crammed into the bed of the pickup truck, along with an old tire and an open box with a dead fish. P took the front corner with his knees banged against the box with the fish; N, E and I were standing (yes we stood at the back of a moving pickup truck, don't tell our mothers!) while grabbing onto each other with N also grabbing onto the hood of the front. K and S were seated on the edge of the bed at the back, with my one arm around S to keep balance and K grabbing my backpack to secure herself. We were laughing the entire time thinking this was the perfect crazy ending to our day. Luckily the driver drove slowly and we arrived safely at the interchange; we waited only a minute before a bus bound for Tofo (didn't even know buses existed in Inhambane) arrived. We gladly boarded and were impressed by how spacious it was, and for the same price as a chapa! We got home just in time for dinner, which V & V had ready: mashed potatoes with gravy, boiled vegetables, and eggs. Food never tasted better!

I also took in the local nightlife at Tofo, or what few things there are. There's live music every Friday at the popular bar and restaurant Dino's (or at least when the band shows up); there's no cover and the bands are not bad. Live football (soccer) games are shown on TV at a few restaurants in the evenings so the Europeans can follow their favorite team; a few of us went to watch the two semifinals of the European Cup, Barcelona vs. Manchester and Madrid vs. Munich, and the place we went was packed with ardent fans (I look forward to the finals now in two weeks). Full-moon party is also a big deal (this is what happens in small beach towns, Koh Tao had them also), for no other reason except to drink and be drunk. Funniest thing is I see the same people over and over regardless of where you go; there are the divemasters from the dive shops, the PhD candidates doing their research with MMF, the tourists who were in the same boat as I, all going to the same places depending on the night of the week. It really is "where everybody knows your name".

Most of the volunteers who started with me end their program on 30 April (only my roommate E will be here for two more weeks, and L will stay through end of May). It was really sad to say goodbye to them; it was such a great group of people, and I felt so lucky to have had the pleasure of living and working alongside them, not to mention the many crazy experiences we've had together. There was a bit of a Hollywood ending though. Half of them had not seen a whale shark the entire time, and the last opportunity was an ocean safari they were all going on the Friday before their departure. The five of us who had seen the whale shark waited at the house during their ocean safari, praying it would end well. Two hours went by, and the first of the group showed up with a huge grin on his face … they had a whale shark sighting and everyone got to swim with it multiple times! It really could not have ended more dramatically: the last ocean safari, the five of them not hopeful that it would happen, yet the best possible ending took place! To add to the drama, ID shots were taken, and when we logged and compared them in the Eco Ocean database, we were able to identify the whale shark they spotted as one that has been around Tofo for three years, nicknamed "Flat Top" because it was missing one of its dorsal fins (cut off by a boat's propeller). It was as though Flat Top came to give them a Tofo goodbye!

With the April volunteers mostly gone, L on break in South Africa this week, and the May volunteers arriving next Monday, this week was very quiet with just E and I at the house. We spent evenings cooking, baking, and organizing photos taken by everyone in April. I actually welcome the downtime this week, plus I get along very well with E. We went on dives and ocean safaris together the entire week, and every one of them was memorable: swam with a pod of dolphins on Monday (including a baby one), dived with a white tip reef shark, at least 6 or 7 manta rays and two mobula rays on Tuesday, and swam with 9 mobula rays, a pod of dolphins, and two whale sharks on Wednesday (I miss swimming laps in pools but I gladly exchange that for swimming alongside a whale shark). It's a shame the April volunteers missed all this, and only by days! But lucky for me.

Tags: barra, manta ray, mozambique, tofo, whale shark

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