Friday, 7 December 2012

The Next Frontier

Hello. My name is Valerie. And I'm a bloody coward.

Three years ago I got on a plane with very little idea of where I'd be living or what I'd be doing for what I thought would only be two years. Though it was a tearful farewell...well...I was too excited to ever reconsider or second-guess my decision. And I haven't really looked back at all.

Except now. Since looking back is now looking forward.

I'm terrified.

Venturing into the great unknown with almost no preparation (remember, I was on a plane to Turkmenistan the week before I got to Moz)? Exploring strange new places and meeting strange new strangers? Forcing myself to learn another language in order to survive on a daily basis? I'll take it!

It wasn't any sort of bravery that brought me here in the first place - it was part boredom, part wanting to see more of the world, part wanting to have a job in my field without having to cover dog and pony shows as an entry-level reporter at a local paper.

...But what happens now?

Nine-to-five desk job with hour-long morning commute? Sterile grocery stores where finding a box of Corn Flakes suddenly isn't the highlight of my week? Getting in trouble with police for standing on the side of the road and waving my hand in an attempt to get a free ride to the other side of the country? What happens when I go from being "whoa, a white girl!" to just another white girl? When having a college degree is a given instead of a specialty? When every day isn't a constant challenge just to get by? Will all the personal growth I've experienced over the past few years slowly melt away along with my Portuguese?

Completely new experiences are always worth the risk. Even if things go horribly wrong, at least you'll end up with a lesson learned and some great stories. But do I have the courage and motivation to go back to what I already know, and try to make the best of it? Do I have the guts to sleep in my high school bedroom (still adorned with Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter) while waitressing tables and filling out countless applications for jobs and schools? Am I brave enough to start at whatever entry-level position I can find, no matter how mundane it might seem?

I know life in the States has so much to offer and that - especially now - I'll do everything I can to make the most of it. I also know how many times I complain about the guy sitting on top of me in the chapa not wearing deoderant, and the criancas chasing me up the street shouting "muzungo!," and arriving at a big project meeting only to find no one else came because it was raining. Moreover, I know I'm going back to an incredible system of support from family and friends that I've sorely neglected over the past two years, and I can't wait to make up for lost time and see how much they've changed and grown.

At the same time, I'm giving up a job that I could see myself doing for life. I'm quitting a beautiful culture and a simpler way of life that I've finally come to understand and even adore. I'm moving out of my own three bedroom house with a yard full of cherimoya, guava, papaya, grapes and passionfruit. I'm acabar-ing being able to constantly improve my second language. I'm leaving behind some of the people on which I depended on a daily basis. Once again, I'm ending a relationship to move continents.

So bear with me. Be patient when I start every other sentence with "In Mozambique..." Don't laugh when I ask where the bucket is to take a shower. Correct me when I use "negar," "ja," "conseguir," and "epa!" in daily conversation. Don't judge me when I use half a bottle of oil to fry an egg. Remind me that people still like me even though I don't get three marriage proposals a day.

I've put off returning long enough - even signing up for another year in a new province. The easy, cowardly thing to do would be to just go to another country and see what trouble I can get into there. But I'm going to try to be brave. I'm going to say farewell and boldy go where I've been before. I'm going home.


Africa will bewitch you, a boleia once told me. I don’t remember the when or where or why, but I remember him saying it and I remember chuckling to myself. I remember it was the dry season where even the rivers are brown, unquestionably over 100 degrees out and we were clunking down the road with the windows down for lack of air conditioning. You would have to be bewitched, because no one in their right mind would willingly stay in a place like this.

And yet here I am.

Back home, I would never be in such a situation. Riding in the air-condition-less beat-up car of a guy who just picked me on the side of the road through a land that was abandoned due to drought. In the States, things are clean, they’re efficient, they’re organized, they’re safe. They’re everything Africa is not. And that’s where Africa gets you.

Africa is gritty. Most of the time, it’s really not pretty. It’s not here to impress. It’s here to be survived, through whatever means possible. In the cities, there are layers of bureaucracy. Outside of that, you wouldn’t know there was a government. Concerning how you live your life, there really are no rules. There’s no FDA to tell you what not to eat, no Surgeon General to convince you to stop smoking, no guard rails on cliffs, no fences around wildlife parks. If you decide to do something dumb, there’ll be no one to stop you and no one to sue afterward.

As such, you can get as close as you dare to the hippopotamus in the river behind your house. You can eat rats on sticks. When you go hiking, you can make the trails. You can cannonball into the water off of a random boat you find anchored in the middle of the lagoon in the middle of the night. You can wander where no one’s been before. And no one will know or care. It’s just you, your imagination and – hopefully – your common sense.

It’s gritty and it’s dangerous, but you’ll never feel more free.

But, it’s not complete chaos. There’s probably more people looking out for you in Mozambique than anywhere in the first world. In the States, when you fall on hard times, or need to get to the hospital in an emergency, or need to locate a resource, there are organizations, entities, programs to help you out. Here, there are friends and family – which are essentially one and the same. When you hit rock bottom, you move in with a relative who – no questions asked – will take care of you and give you all the tough lovin’ you can take until you’re back on your feet. There are no firetrucks or ambulances – there are neighbors who will share with you if they have the means. In cases where the police simply aren’t sufficient, mob justice does more to deter crime than any jail. And when you’re too busy to take care of your own kids, it doesn’t matter – there’s 20 other kids in the street who will look after each other and the younger ones. When you want to see where a road goes, there’s no Google maps. You have to ask someone or go down it yourself to find out where it leads.  

Of course, this has driven me crazy at times over the past two years. When teachers don’t show up to class because they simply don’t feel like teaching and there’s no real accountability, it’s enough to drive anyone crazy. But it is awfully helpful when your boleia breaks down on the road home after a beach weekend.

That attitude has been infectious among PCVs and pretty much anyone you befriend along the way. I've always prided myself on being as independent as possible and never asking for help. But here, I'm okay with being dependent, because I know I'll just pay it back - or forward - in some way. People stay at my house that I’ve never met before they showed up at my door. My Chimoio family includes a married couple that doesn’t hesitate to offer their house, car or other resources to us PCVs; a Lebanese businessman that refuses to let us pitch in money for the near-weekly BBQ nights at his house; my adopted Canadian father that makes sure I never lack anything – including parmesan cheese; of course, my site mates, whom I see more than I ever saw my family in the states. We’re connected only by the fact that we’re strangers in a strange and difficult land, and we need that support system.

Africa might be considered wild and "undeveloped" by some standards, but in some ways I think that's exactly the way it should be.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Khanimambo Jesus!

I am not Catholic by any stretch of the imagination.

But somehow, Catholicism has been a surprisingly prominent part of my Peace Corps service, even before joining the Catholic University. The Portuguese started converting Mozambicans to Roman Catholicism when they arrived in the 1500s. Around 28 percent of the population currently follows Catholicism to some degree, according to the CIA World Factbook. You can find mission compounds for various orders in almost every town, which often run schools and orphanages with an effeciency that makes NGOs green with envy.

I personally encountered this on my second day in Moz, I was woken up far too early for being so jetlagged to Mama C chanting “Igreja! Igreja!” at me. As I had been studying Portuguese for a grand total of three days, it was not until Junior brought me to the large steepled building that I connected the word with “church.”
In Chokwe, as part of that much-preached “community integration” I attended every church I was invited to. And after a few Sundays of shouted group prayers, live exorcisms, mandatory dancing with hands on head, etc., I found myself willing retreating to the comparatively familiar and drastically calmer rituals of the Catholic mass.
Somewhere along the way, one of the Brazilian priests got my phone number and for a few months I taught basic English lessons to Padres Armando and Jose, two of the most chipper and friendly Catholic priests you’ll ever meet.

At the university, it’s inescapable. Every meeting starts with a prayer and every major gathering includes a mass. I once walked into my office to find a plastic bag of twenty 3-in plastic Virgin Marys (actually intended for the pastoral head and food science teacher in the office down the hall). In the communication department alone, Sister Esperança teaches Portuguese, Brother Bambo teaches Ethics, Father Juliasse teaches Methodology and Father Jorge teaches Theories of Communication. Since they’ve fixed the projectors to point directly above the chalkboard in some classrooms, there’s now a crucifix smack dab in the middle of every PowerPoint presentation.

I’ve seen some pretty cool Catholic churches.

National Cathedral, USA

Notre Dame, France

Sacre Couer, France

Catedral de Segovia, Spain

Catedral de Santo Domingo, Peru
But Moz churches are a little different.

Catholic church, Chimoio

Catholic church, Namaacha

The structures themselves are incredibly simple. Painted concrete, exposed lights, clear glass windows (when there are windows), and pews made of 2x4s, with a few inches of wood across your upper back and, if you sit up straight, a few more across your lower back. The pews on the sides don’t have backs, and some of the mothers sit here so their babies can stay in the capulanas on their backs. The older ladies sit on reed mats at the front to stretch out their legs.
The altar is usually a wooden table covered with a white table cloth. Unlike the gilded statues in some churches, there’s usually nothing behind the altar but wooden chairs for the priests and a wooden cross. In the Namaacha church, there were blue paper die-cuts sticky-tacked to the wall in an arch that read “Adorai o Coração de Jesus.” For the congregation’s wardrobe, anything goes. Shiny silky pink prom dresses, blue jeans with sweaters, capulanas, t-shirts from Huntington’s Science Camp in 2002.

Padre Jorge and Brother Bambo, who both teach in the communication department

And then there’s the actual worship. Of course there are no hymnals. Instead, one single voice in the choir starts, a capella, and establishes the melody. Others in the choir pick it up if they know it, and by the second line most of the congregation has joined in. Then the maraca-type instruments start, and then the drums. If you’re at a really fancy church, they might also have an electric keyboard that chimes in around now. By the third line, everyone is clapping, swaying, and singing together. If the song really heats up, a few of the ladies might let loose the celebratory Mozambican yell that I can only equate to what you hear on Xena: Warrior Princess. There’s no such thing as a bad singer in church here. You just belt it out and it’s beautiful.

Most of the songs and the sermon are in Portuguese, but every church has a varying level of the local dialect. In Chokwe, the Brazilian priest would give the sermon and was immediately followed, line by line, by a Mozambican translator into Xangana. All the readings from the Bible were done first in Portuguese, then in Xangana. Missionaries are the absolute best at integrating and adapting to new languages, and Catholics are the most die-hard of all. The only book I’ve ever seen in Xangana is the Bible. Those people are determined.

In Chimoio, a slightly more metropolitan setting, most of the service is in Portuguese, but the songs go back and forth. Some of the melodies are distinctly African. But at least once a mass I’ll get chill bumps when I hear the melody of “How Great Thou Art” or “Great is Thy Faithfulness” with words I can’t understand and accompanied only by drums. Sometimes I sing along in English anyway.


The offering is much more enjoyable – and sometimes downright entertaining – than the services I’m accustomed to. Of course, there’s a few people who stand alongside the priest in front of the altar with baskets waiting to receive the coin and small bills (no envelopes here!) that people give. But then there’s also the procession. Usually it’s led by girls in matching capulanas doing an orchestrated dance down the aisle, stepping forward, raising hands, bowing, stepping back, spinning, all together. After them comes the actual offerings – the ones which must be carried on heads: 25 kilo bags of rice and beans, baskets of vegetables, bottles of oil, boxes of bolachas. They actually bring in the best of the harvest. And on really good days (usually Easter or Christmas), there’s also the lucky kids who gets to drag in the goats. Just try to give them plenty of space. And watch where you step when you leave. But everyone is still belting it out, dancing going down the aisle, and you just kind of want to jump in like a congo line and join in the praise. Just ahead of the goats.

Though there’s still the excessive amount of standing and kneeling, the mass is one of the most beautiful ways to experience Moz culture. So much so that you can’t help yourself but worship.


Tuesday, 25 September 2012


This fountain is the bane of my existence and the embodiment of everything that is wrong in Mozambique.
It is a moldy, stagnant, bacteria-and-malaria-breeding eyesore in the midst of a lovely grove of trees. But that’s not the problem.

I walk by this festering fount daily. One day a few months back, however, I noticed as I passed that it had been drained. Finally! I thought, no more disease-ridden water reserve. It’s about time.

When I passed a day later, city workers were painting the inside of the fountain blue. That’s nice, I thought, people won’t even notice the lack of water.

The next day, the faucet was on and the fountain was filling up. Ever the optimist, I thought, well, maybe somebody finally decided it’s worth the upkeep and will actually maintain it for a while.

The fourth day, President Guebuza came to town. His caravan of tinted, black SUVs passed rows of cheering citizens and a beautiful, sanitary, fully-functional fountain.

The following day, President Guebuza and his troop of important government officials left. The fountain was turned off. With the exception of cigarette butts, doomed insects, empty plastic bottles and malaria-laden mosquitoes, it hasn’t been touched since. It has returned to its original state.

Unfortunately, this is what I see as one of the biggest flaws in the Mozambican culture – the obsession with empty appearances.

It is the reason why my school has sanitary hands-free automatic soap dispensers mounted on the walls that have never once held soap.

It is the reason why people will eagerly agree to attend a meeting set for Tuesday though they know they’re going out of town for a week on Monday.

It is the reason why school directors will give speeches on women’s rights but turn a blind eye when teachers blatantly sleep with their students.

It is the reason why the government education department shows glowing grade reports to international donors, after local teachers have spent the past week adding points to tests so 80% of their students don’t fail as they should.

It is the reason why so many people die of “an illness” rather than the super-taboo HIV/AIDS.

It is the reason why nothing ever changes – because it’s so much more pleasant to make things appear better to those outside than to do the work to actually correct it on the inside.

It's certainly not a problem unique to Mozambique. But it is something I pointed out to my journalism students. Maybe someday they'll start asking questions and someone will realize the regular people who see and live next to it on a daily basis are much more important than the big-wigs that occassionally pass by.

Friday, 7 September 2012

The Other 90 Percent of the PC Experience.

This is primarily to reassure my parents that there is more to my life than hitch-hiking around Africa, weekends at the beach and hosting traveling PCVs at my home.

I like to work. A lot. Always have. To the extent that if I did not have friends around, I would only work and thereby be the most boring person on earth. But here I wouldn’t notice because what I do – for the most part – makes me happy.

At the Universidade Católica de Moçambique, through one of those bizarre-but-oh-so-blessed twists of fate (original coordinator fled back to Italy), I am the Director of the Communications for Development program. I had very little idea what this meant originally (else I might have fled to Italy, too). I spend a depressing amount of my day right here, in the office I share with the head of the food engineering department:

As the “coordenadora,” I keep the department running. I decide what classes they take. I find the professors to fill those classes and submit their payroll. I propose the budget. I am in charge of ALL of my students’ grades – which includes getting the class grades from the professors, calculating the averages, posting them for the students, dealing with the backlash. During exam time (also known as "Avoid Val Week"), I’m responsible for determining who has an average too low to even take the exam, writing the exams, making sure professors are always there to proctor the exams (which means being there for every exam), coding the exams so the professors grading the tests don’t know whose test it is (yay corruption-fighting methods), posting results…and then doing it all over again for the “second chance” exams the following week. Any issues that the professors have, any concerns that the students have, any administrative issues in the communication program…that’s my job. Oh, and to attend two two-hour meetings a week. I am always at school by 8 and sometimes don’t leave (except to buy peanuts from Mana Elisa on the corner around 10:30) until my last night class is over – at 9 pm. It is a daily lesson in time and chaos management.

But that’s all okay. Because I also get to teach.

Perhaps it’s only because I spent the past two years teaching whiny high-schoolers a discipline they (and sometimes I) could care less about and so I therefore have low standards – but I enjoy teaching. The first semester, I taught Introduction to Communication, which included the history, theories and means of media and communication throughout the world, as well as random trivia about everything from Sesame Street to Bob Schieffer. This semester (because I’m the coordinator and decide who teaches what), I’m teaching a Techniques in Writing class which focuses on practicing different writing styles and (yay!) grammar. After recieving entire compositions without a single punctuation point and having to continually correct glaring spelling errors (in Portuguese...), there was no doubt I could not rest until I had tackled this course.
Here's a lovely sample of what I subject my students to daily:
EE2 - Jornalismo

In case you missed it, I’m a huge nerd. Which is why I’m so stoked about teaching things like proper spelling, nouns and verbs, editing marks, logical organization, etc. That and this is all COMPLETELY new to my students, so they don’t even realize how much they’re supposed to hate it yet. The resources – PowerPoint, projectors, the Internet with a Portuguese writing style guide, etc. – also make it a bit more manageable and therefore enjoyable.

But the actual writing is where I feel the most need and the most useful. There’s simply not the same culture of reading and writing. Creative writing, poetry, prose that’s as good as poetry, writing concisely and directly…don’t care who you are, this is exciting.

It also helps that I have a great group of students. They take pride in being future “communicadores.” I didn’t even realize til what extent until I was invited to the 50th birthday party of one of my students and found so many of my other students there, and then was asked to give a speech (it happens at parties…think Hobbits) about the birthday student, the whole class and communication in general. Here’s one of the countless communicadores photos we took that night:

Pursuing higher education, and particularly at the second-ranked university in the country (doesn’t matter if there’s only three), is a defining point for them. And this is why I can’t complain too much when one asks for the bizillionth time in one day when their grades are going to be posted.

I also teach five classes of English a week. Which is what I was originally brought here to do. And I do it. Just perhaps with a bit less gusto.

Having colleagues who are just as enthusiastic and don’t let my age deter them from showing me the utmost respect is also a huge perk. My fellow American and director of civil engineering, Hoang, is especially good at keeping me sane and we inevitably end up in each others’ office a fair share for therapeutic venting. Other professors are from Poland, Togo, Zimbabwe, Cuba, and at least a couple got their PhDs in the States. Their work ethic only encourages my own. It's a great feeling. 

But hey, it's still Mozambique. We still know how to have a good time. 

Francisco and Hoang on Dia de Santo Agostinho

Francisco and Filomena in the obligatory Congo line at the UCM graduation.

UCM at the Dia de Trabalhadores parade

The ever-eloquent Mr. Phiri and Texas A&M alum Dr. Ferrao

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Great Northern Adventure! Part IV

July 31
Ilha de Mocambique - Pemba = 407 km

Won’t lie – Pemba originally wasn’t in our plans. We had another, closer, beach lined up for the last leg of our journey. But while enjoying our time in Ilha the conversation went something like this:

Emily: Woooo! We’ve done five provinces in less than two weeks!
Val: We’re so awesome! In fact, there’s only one province in the entire country I haven’t been to now.
Emily: Me too! And it’s…
Emily & Val: Cabo Delgado!
(*moment of silent realization and plotting*)
Emily: So…how do you feel about Pemba?
Val: Let’s go! Woo!

Thus, we found ourselves on the side of the road in a truckstop of a town called Namialo early the next morning (after two rather unfortunate chapas incidents involving so many people the cobrador couldn’t shut the door and a box of fresh crabs), back to doing our boleia dance for cars to Pemba. While waiting, we called up PCV Ellen and Christine, whom we’d never met before and whose numbers we’d gotten from PCV Patrick and whose house we’d be staying at the next couple of days.

We landed a sweet private car straight to Pemba with a businessman from Nampula and quickly passed out. I was just awake enough to see the sign right before a large bridge that read “Provincia de Cabo Delgado.” At which point, three years after stepping foot in Moz, I had officially visited every province in the country. Finally. I’ll tackle the states next.

The boleia dropped us off in town and after a lunch of beans at the market, we hopped a chapa to Ellen and Christine’s place. They work and live at a teacher training school, and so their house is outfitted not only with all the essential furniture (fridge, stove, pseudo-couch, etc.) but a room with two sets of bunk beds. PCV Derek was also in town to get some work done (his site, two hours down the road, doesn’t have electricity). We chilled at their place the rest of the afternoon and walked down to a restaurant called FrangoAssado (Grilled Chicken) for dinner. Complete with two options on the menu (chicken with xima, or chicken with rice), a full fridge and no silverware, it’s a chicken joint after my own heart.

August 1 & 2

The next two days were spent relatively the same way – here, a 20-minute walk from Ellen and Christine’s place. It was us, the sun and water, boys selling chocolate bars, and our books and a year’s worth of People magazines (a la Ellen). So here’s all you really need to know:

PCV Derek in a palm tree.

found him on the beach. he moves.

homemade HotWheels

August 3

Pemba – Alto Molocue = 613 km

We leave Ellen and Christine’s before dawn and walk to the main road. We have a vague plan to get as far as we can to PCV sites and finish up in Chimoio the day after that. After an hour, we catch a private car with a gentleman headed a few hours down the road. At that town, we settle for hopping into the back of an open back chapa headed to Nampula. Despite the potholes, bumps and wind as we cruise down the road, I manage to bury myself in Lonesome Dove and not think about how far we have to go.

In Nampula four hours later, Emily and I take a detour to get apas – a fried egg folded in a tortilla-type wrap and drizzled with sauce, only available in select places in the north. We catch a chapa to the edge of town and wait for an hour before settling for sharing the front seat of a large truck that pokes along around 40 mph.

We arrive in Alto Molocue after dark to find the two PCVs who live there – education PCV Sam (who had site visited with me during training back in Chokwe last November) and health PCV Dylan. We head back to Sam’s after a quick chicken dinner and Emily and I crash on his makeshift couch-bed for the night.

August 4

Alto Molocue–Chimoio = 809 km

Sam sees us off around 5 and we hike through the hilly streets back to the main road. It’s 7:30 before we finally catch a private pick-up going to Macuba and climb in the back. In Mocuba we barely start to boleia when a couple of gentlemen from Maputo stop by and we chat the next couple of hours to the turn-off in Nicoadala, where one road goes to Chimoio and the other to Quelimane, the provincial capital of Zambezia. Here we have the great fortune to flag down a chipper Spanish family and stretch out in the bed of their pick-up.

On the way, we stop for a photo-op at the Arvore Milagroso. The lady in the front seat, who has a bit of a beard, tells us thatthis particularly tree is incredibly rare and drops only one leaf each year. If you climb up and tear one off yourself, she says, the tree bleeds.

We continue with the family until Gorongosa Park. We’re dirty and disgusting from so many hours in the back of vehicles, but still having a good time and knowing that we’re only a few more hours from our own beds (as much as I enjoyed snuggling with Emily and various other PCVs throughout the trip) where we can sleep in past 5 am.

At Gorongosa we manage to shove our way into a chapa and I spend the next two hours with my arms pinned against me, the cobrador standing over me and so many legs underneath me I’m certain I’m standing on someone’s feet the whole trip but can’t see them to know and don’t have anywhere else to put them anyway (it’s okay, they go numb quickly and then you don’t have to worry about it until you try to stand up). Back in Inchope, we immediately get a ride inside a private truck that drops us off at the Peace Corps office an hour later.

We walk home. Though it’s after dark in the coldest month of the year in one of the coldest cities in Mozambique, I take a cold shower just to be able to have running water, which I haven’t experienced since Malawi. I wash over 600 kilometers of road dirt off and don’t shut off the shower until the water running off my feet is clear again.

However, we only have about an hour. Two friends of ours, a British couple, are leaving Moz to head back to the UK, and we’re having a good-bye party at their place. In an hour, we manage to magically transform ourselves from dirty hippie-zombies to civilized party-going human beings again. It’s right around the corner from my house, so we walk there, and afterward return to my place along with PCV Shane to avoid their having to pay for taxis home. Finally, we pass out in my enormous bed, but inevitably are awake around 6 the next morning.

Grand total: 3899 km

Until the next adventure!

Monday, 20 August 2012

Great Northern Adventure! Part III

July 27

Cape Maclear - Cuamba = 279 km
Sometimes I lie awake at night and dream about driving a private car.

And on this particular Friday morning, I awoke from such a dream to climb into the back of a pick-up with 12 other people a a massive box of dried fish on the way back to Monkey Bay. At one point, a lady even tossed her bundled baby into  my lap so that she could climb over people to get in (thankfully, she took him back after only a couple not-so-subtle reminders). From Monkey Bay we caught a chapa to Mangochi, and in Mangochi (after realizing the open-back chapa was practically empty and therefore not leaving for quite some time, we had a godsend – literally, we got a boleia with two Italian nuns. Religious boleais are almost as good as South African boleias: they don’t lack for funding and so have top-notch vehicles with seatbelts and A/C, and while they might not buy you things as South African are prone to do, they usually drive very safely.  On the way, we had even better fortune to spot a congress of these along the side of the road...

(Stole this from Google image. But this vaguely resembles the mental image I took. Close enough.)

A boleia in the back of a bread truck, another bike taxi across the border and we were back in good-ole Portuguese-speaking Moz.

At which point we boarded the Open-Back from Hell. Hell, because I imagine Heaven as being a very clean place, and this was the exact opposite.

I have never in my life been dirty to the extent that I have in Mozambique. At the end of this particular day, I would take a bucket bath where the bath pooling around my feet was so brown I couldn’t see my toes. But that’s later; at this point in the story, it was simply me, Emily, Annie, a looooooong stretch of dirt road and the open sky.

The trees and bushes along the side of the road looked like they were carved from copper because the layer of red dirt was so thick on them. You could feel the dirt hitting you and sticking to the mixture of sunscreen and sweat on your skin. You could write words on your forehead simply by rubbing with your finger (lasts about thirty seconds, then turns brown again). And God forbid you have an itch because your fingernails fill with all kids of indescribable gross when you scratch. When Emily took off her sunglasses at the end of it all, it looked like she’d had a particuarly intense session in the tanning bed. This is what dirty means. And this is how we sat for four hours (minus the ten minutes where we stopped because our driver hit and killed a goat crossing the road and he had to run back and pay the goatherder).

When we finally arrived in Cuamba, Emily and I said tchau to Annie, who was catching another chapa back to Gurue. The two of us then sought out lunch and the train station, our plan being to spend the night with PCV Jama and hop the 5 am train to Nampula the following morning.

The train arrives anywhere between 15h and 19h, and it is only then that you can buy your tickets. Emily and I planted ourselves in front of the ticket window around 16h and passed the time reading, resting, dreaming of showers, and chatting with fellow travelers we met – a young couple doing a sub-Saharan Africa tour from France, and a middle-aged couple traveling Mozambique from Spain. And we waited, as the plaza slowly filled up with people.

I’m still not certain how people knew the train was coming. But all at once, there was a mad rush for the ticket window. People don’t really believe in lines, so it’s just kind of however many people can mass into a marked area and then force their way through whatever means to the destination, be it ticket window, chapa door or ATM. We had worked out a plan, and while Emily raced for the throng.

Thankfully, before the even started selling the tickets, I receive a message from Jama saying that she was friends with the station master, had reserved our tickets, and needed only to find and pay him to get them. So I moved in the opposite direction of the throng, found the man who was quite amiable, and had the tickets in my hand before the ticket window opened. This is why PCVs are awesome.

Once we got our tickets, we found our way to Jama’s house, where she and PCV Zacarias had already prepared dinner. I finally rinsed that layer of dirt of my skin. And we crashed in bed.

July 28

Cuamba - Ilha de Moçambique =531 km

Think Hogwarts Express. Think the Orient Express. Think AmTrack. And then think that it hasn’t had a change of upholstery or anything else for about thirty years. That is the train that runs from Cuamba to Nampula.

We arrived at the train just before 5 (and remember, this is the middle of winter). Passing by the cargo cars, you could see people moving things around in the dark using the light their cell phones. Emily and I splurged for second-class tickets, which meant we were in a compartment. I could just make out four other gray-ish shapes in the light from the train station coming through the window in compartment G – our cabin mates.

We snuggled into our cozy compartment for the 11-hour ride, most of which was spent chatting, reading, sleeping, snacking and watching the mountains fly by the window. By far the best way to travel in Moz.

The villages along the train track seemed only to exist because of the train. Each place we stopped would already have a crowd of people, and not just to board. Instead, people flocked to the windows with baskets and buckets on their heads piled high with fruits, veggies, cokes, water, whatever, to sell.

Unfortunately, a large number of the vendors were kids, which made the whole money/goods exchange out the side of the window a bit tricky.

The other tricky part made me wish that I hadn’t bought the bottled water from that kid… I didn’t take a picture of the bathroom, but allow me to describe: closet with hole in the bottom. A decent-sized hole at that, big enough to lose your leg in if you’re not careful. When you first enter, it’s actually a bit mesmerizing to watch the tracks fly by through the hole. But then you get over the fascination when you realize this is absolutely all you have to work with. And then begins the fun task of bracing yourself against the walls over said hole, trying to maintain both your balance and your aim as the train bumps along the tracks while trying not to think about all the others who have attempted (some without success, as is plainly marked) the same before you.

We arrived in Nampula around 17 and walked to the chapa station with the Spanish couple to catch a chapa to Ilha de Mozambique. The magical transport with plenty of space, cushy seats, and food walking up to the window was gone. But not before an obligatory train photo was taken.

And we were off to Ilha.

July 29

First, a bit of history about Ilha de Moçambique…

Ilha is known for being the first place in Moz colonized by Europeans, but it was actually an Arab port before that. In fact, the island and subsequently the country got its name from an Arab trader, Musa Al Big. In 1498, the Vasco de Gama of fifth-grade history class legend arrived and Ilha became the capital of the Portuguese East Africa company, which traded in slaves, spices and gold.

The Portuguese have long since been chased out and the tiny island’s 14,000 current inhabitants are 95% Muslim, but the fort, hospital, churches and narrow streets that look like they fell straight out of Europe still stand. The island is reached via a 3km bridge from the mainland, and can be traversed end-to-end in a little over an hour. It’s so narrow that in places without buildings, you can do a 180 and see both shores.

I’m pretty sure even de Gama himself wasn’t as excited as I was about finally arriving in Ilha.

The end of the island closest to the bridge, Makuti, is full of traditional Moz-style houses (cinder blocks and tin roofs). The entire neighborhood sits a few meters below the road, as this area was stripped of stones to build the fort and town on the ritzier end. Emily and I crashed with PCV Patrick on this side of town, and set out the first morning for the side known as “Stone Town.”

Most of the streets that cut through the multi-story, multi-colored stone buildings are barely wide enough for cars. Some of the buildings are well maintained, with bright shutters on the windows and flower pots on the tiny balconies. Others, however, have been home to only squatters for so long they’re literally caving in on themselves.

The old governor’s place – complete with statue of de Gama out front – is a museum, now in the process of being rehabilitated. Emily and I stopped by the palace to purchase our tickets to visit the Fortaleza São Sebastião. The fort was built between 1558 and 1620 and is the largest European fort in Sub-Saharan Africa.

A guard just outside the entrance took our tickets, then Emily and I had free reign to poke around in the old soldiers’ barracks, chapel, officers’ houses, kitchen, firing wall, etc. And perhaps a sunken ship at the edge of the slave auction site?

We also found that, after the fort ceased to be used and prior to being named an UNESCO protected site, other people had seen fit to utilize the area for different purposes.

"trancas," i.e. where people go to get their hair did

Beyond that, the fort was in surprisingly good repair. At least, enough that you could let yourself imagine what it must've been like to arrive at the fort a few hundred years ago.

Hidden in a corner of the fort is another gem: the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte. Constructed in 1522, it’s considered the oldest European building in the southern hemisphere. The previous inhabitants were even still hanging on in the walls. It seriously felt like we’d somehow fallen through a rabbit hole and out of Africa altogether.

"Brother Fern...???"

But then we went and ate matpa de siri-siri – matapa (see previous entry) made with seaweed – and all was right with the world.

Afterward we wandered around (literally, we pretty much walked the circumference of the island) til we found a nice spot on the water to park it, read our books, and watch the sun set.

July 30

Have I mentioned that a perk of crashing with PCVs is that they always know people? The next morning, PCV Patrick (who apparently has a lot of guests…) called up a friend and Emily and I set off for a cruise on a dhow boat.

What distinguishes a dhow boat, you ask? Imagine if Gilligan and his crew had built a sail boat – without the help of the professor.

It’s essentially a wooden hull with slats across the middle to sit on. The “mast” is made of a series of long, thin poles lashes together with once-colorful rope, and they hoist it up using only a primitive pulley system that involves only more ropes. The mast itself is a patchwork of off-white canvas. One guy sits in the back guiding the hand-carved rudder, and the other one hops around directing and tying the sail. During launch and landing, you as a passenger might be asked to sit on different sides of the boat several times to help out the whole balancing process. In fact, for most of the ride back, one of our guides had to perch himself on the end of a stick wedged into the hull and hanging a good three feet over the water in order to balance us out.

Once the sail was tied down and we started cruising toward the mainland, Emily and I were free to kick back and dip our hands into the water as we sailed back to the mainland.

The place we landed, though back on the mainland, can only be reached by boat. Our guide took us across the thin peninsula to the open ocean on the other side. There was a tide pool just over a small hill, and this is where we broke out the snorkel gear PCV Patrick had lent us and dived in.

The pool was only about 30 meters across and of varying depths and mostly covered with vegetation at the bottom. And it was FULL of fish.

My favorite sighting? This guy:

Again, stolen from Google because my camera doesn't take kindly to water.

After exploring every inch of the tide pool, we wandered to the open water and spent the afternoon swimming, snorkeling, reading and sun bathing before our guy found us and took us back to the island.

We wrapped up the day meeting with two newly arrived PCVs, Megan and Caitlin, and Patrick at a rooftop restaurant. Emily and I split a giant lobster which they prepared over a charcoal fire a few feet away. Then we crashed in bed to get ready for the final leg of our trip: Pemba.