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.

1 comment:

  1. sounds like so much fun! Loved reading this!