Wednesday, April 19, 2006

From the border to the coast, northern Moçambique . . . “Bom Dia”

In an attempt to focus on northern Mozambique rather than the sad fact that we had to leave Malawi, I started looking at the Mozambique guidebook in a little more detail and discovered that:

Any honest description of northern Mozambique is bound to repel visitors seeking comfort or predictability . . . Northern Mozambique offers the sort of challenging travel that recalls conditions in countries like Zambia, Tanzania and Uganda in the mid-1980s – but exacerbated by linguistic barriers, . . relatively high costs and a public transport system that defies rational comprehension.”

Me: Umm, Phil, have you read this?
Phil: Don’t worry, read this bit . . .

Northern Mozambique is likely to whet the appetite of travellers looking for an adventurous trip though one of southern Africa’s least explored regions.”

Me: Are we "travellers looking for an adventurous trip"?
Phil: Well I am, aren't you?

So began our journey into Mozambique.

The only way to cross the nearest border post was to walk 6 kilometres with our bags or hire someone to give us a lift on the back of their bicycle - bicycle taxis. So, we were peddled in to the town of Mandimba in Mozambique where we picked up a truck to Cuamba, a fairly non-descript dusty town further east. We were forced to stay in Cuamba for a few days to wait for the train to take us towards the coast.

Portuguese is the official language in Mozambique and, unlike Maputo in the south (which we visited briefly on New Year’s Eve), very few people in northern Mozambique speak English. Despite the language barrier we were usually able to get by with Phil’s Spanish, some hand gestures and drawing in the dirt with a stick. Our efforts didn’t always meet with success. One attempt to find a deck of cards using hand gestures and sound effects ended with us being offered a can of insect spray.

The language barrier was particularly tricky when we found ourselves in a dispute with the owner of an (already overpriced) hotel. As we tried to checkout we were told that the rate we had been informed of when we checked in was for residents only and, as tourists, the hotel’s policy was to charge 25% more. Annoyed that we had been assured of one price and charged another we insisted on paying the original price. After some discussion with the very sympathetic local management who we suspect disliked the owner as much as we later came to, we were confronted with the irate Portuguese owner who refused to ‘lower’ the price. It was a stand off.

We resisted the You-Can’t-Do-That -I-Am a-Lawyer approach, assuming it would be as unsuccessful in Mozambique as it is in the rest of the world. Instead we suggested that she call the police and have them settle the issue.

Thankfully, we did not end up in a Mozambican jail. The owner failed to call our bluff and finally caved in. A few hours after our first attempt we managed to checkout and hopped on a train bound for Nampula.

The train ride to Nampula was unique. At every stop the station turned into a mini-market with people from the villages selling anything and everything through the train’s windows. You could do your grocery shopping from the train - bananas, potatoes, garlic, onions, squash, cassava, cucumbers, pumpkins, chillis, lemons, oranges, chickens, eggs, bread, cashew nuts (or 'the king of nuts' as Phil calls them) and soft drinks were only a few of the items that changed hands along the track.

Unfortunately, my enjoyment of the journey was somewhat marred by the horrifying discovery that my last unread novel, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest’, had been lost in transit. I found myself sitting through a 12-hour train ride completely ‘bookless’. Anyone who knows me understands how devastated I was. Phil told me to breathe deeply and try to focus on the entertainment of the train ride itself, but I could not be mollified.

To make matters worse I knew the chances of purchasing a novel written in English were slim to none in Mozambique. However, I got 'lucky' - I am now the owner of three of Danielle Steel’s best sellers, purchased from a hotel shop on the coast of Mozambique. It was Danielle Steel or Mills & Boon. A choice I never thought I would have to make. The horror . . . the horror!

Armed with reading material we made for islands off the coast of Mozambique. More on that in the next entry, which should be within the week.


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