Saturday, January 10, 2009

Mozambique, the Apocalypse, 6 month inventory and other things

HAPPY BELATED EVERYTHING! I just returned from the adventure that was our massive group trip to Mozambique, a trip which reaffirmed the fact that plans are absolutely pointless in Africa. There’s this joke about how volunteers from Asia come back spiritually enlightened, volunteers from South America come back politically aware, and volunteers from Africa come back drunk and laughing. When Group 5 first told us that we thought they were alcoholics, but after a full week of “this is my life” kind of moments, I think we finally get it…

Our adventure started out bright and early on the 23rd of December when me and 8 other volunteers set off for Maputo, an uneventful 5 hour drive from Manzini. (Trust me, after 6 months in Africa a 5 hour trip is nothing.) After settling in at our hostel in Maputo, we spent the whole afternoon wandering around the city with a not-to-scale map, marveling at the “sky scrapers” (buildings taller than 3 stories), bargaining with men selling crafts (we didn’t buy anything, we just wanted to bargain), and hunting for a movie theater (High School Musical 3 was the only one not in Portuguese…no thanks). We had falafel, we drank margaritas, we went to bed at 8:30. It was fantastic.

The next morning (Christmas Eve) we rolled out of bed at 5am to catch the “express bus” to Tofo, a beach town approximately 6-8 hours north of Maputo. Theoretically. After standing outside the bus for a full hour while the bus driver and conductor loaded the 22-seater bus with a whole sound system (we’re talking about 4 enormous speakers that go on a stage during a live performance) and a small liquor store, we crammed ourselves into the bus and finally left Maputo at 7:30am. Two hours late. And that was just the beginning. Aside from the fact that the driver seemed to have a death wish and kept passing into a blind spot at twice the speed limit (I’m not exaggerating at all), the first 2 hours of the ride weren’t so bad. Then the driver decided to make a pit stop at a gas station…and by “pit stop” I mean he dropped us all off and drove off for a little over an hour and a half to do who-knows-what. When he finally returned, we were all pretty grumpy (though I can’t say this was totally unexpected since he did EXACTLY the same thing when Lori and I made the same trip in 2007, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating) and eager to get on to Tofo. Long story short, it soon became apparent that the driver was running a side business delivering broomstick handles, PVC pipe, liquor and bags of unidentified things to the rural areas of the country, some of which weren’t exactly on the way. The last straw came when we finally pulled into Inhambane (the closest town to Tofo beach) and the driver asked us to all get off the bus so he could unload the liquor under our seats. Um, no. At this point, we’d been sitting on the bus for over 10 hours (well, over 8 I suppose considering the 2 we were stuck at the gas station) and our patience was exhausted. We refused to get up and screamed at him to drop us off at the beach first, then make his deliveries. Yes, I suppose we were those hated Angry Americans (not just us, though, there were other people on the bus too), but considering how long we’d been sitting on that bus I’d say we were being kind. (Did I mention it was also a million degrees and we were all getting one-sided sunburns through the windows?) Anyway, we finally made it to Tofo at just under 12 hours, and the first thing the staff at the hostel says was “Did you break down or something? The bus always gets here by 1.” Hm, it was 5:45pm. That’s bad even for Africa.

We checked into Bamboozi’s, the backpacker place we were staying at for the week, and immediately immersed ourselves in the ocean. Just being in the Indian Ocean almost made us forget the frustration of the previous 12 hours, but since it gets dark at around 7:30 we only had an hour or so before we had to begin the marathon eating that would become the main feature of our vacation. But considering how expensive and difficult to come by seafood is in Swaziland, I certainly wasn’t complaining!

It started raining while we slept on Christmas Eve and it didn’t stop for 4 days. And when I say “raining,” I mean it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my pre-Swaziland life. (And we were sleeping in a hut made out of reeds, which wasn’t exactly waterproof, so EVERYTHING we had got wet.) I would post some photos, but my camera was among the unfortunate casualties of the rain (other casualties included clothes that hopelessly mildewed, prescription glasses that floated away and shoes that were ripped off by the tide…on the sidewalk). No joke. The first day of the rain was pretty comical, actually. We spent the morning trying to figure out how to open a coconut (those things aren’t meant to be eaten) and in the afternoon we played Uno with Peace Corps South Africa and ate non-stop. Because nothing says “Christmas” like coconuts, torrential rain, Uno and cheese fries. We even ventured into the ocean that first afternoon, but it was raining so hard it was PAINFUL. (Also I have to say BIG THANKS to Rob’s family who sent a little Christmas tree and ornaments and things to him in a care package, which made it feel a little more like Christmas…)

On the 26th, a few of us ventured into Inhambane (pronounced in-yahm-BAH-nay) to use the ATM and hunt for a grocery store (there isn’t one) and basically kill time, and we were unwittingly caught in the worst part of the storm. Rob and I, who broke off from the larger group to peruse the market, were so wet after just walking the 3 blocks to the ATM that we decided that shelter and umbrellas were a lost cause and wandered through the city looking for the “history” that Lonely Planet talks about. (Apparently Inhambane is the oldest city in Mozambique, but we couldn’t find too many cool things to do other than a train station, some old cannons, a nice bakery and lots of shops for me to buy colorful cloth.) Still, we had a pretty good time wandering around taking ridiculous pictures of ourselves sopping wet in front of one Communist statue after another (yes, this may have contributed to the death of my camera), and after a certain point the absurdity of the scene was absolutely hilarious. We were walking (more like wading) down the street in the pouring rain, my knee-length skirt dragging in the water, past enormous whirlpools of water searching for the drains on the sides of the street. I literally had to wring myself out before entering a shop once, and after I left I heard the shopkeeper yell for his son to mop up the aftermath of my presence. It was ridiculous. And if I don’t have shisto (a waterborne parasite that attacks the liver) after that experience, I’ll be genuinely surprised.

The rain finally started to let up on Friday night, at least enough that we could have a legitimate night out at the one bar on the beach. Dino’s is a restaurant/bar thing that after 10 pm turns into a night club of sorts, complete with disco ball and rhythmically flashing lights. We went there Friday and Saturday nights, then spent Sunday night at Fatima’s, another backpackers, watching a live band with Peace Corps Namibia. It was a good time. Come Sunday afternoon, the weather was absolutely perfect for the beach, and we had 2 full days of swimming and sunbathing before we left for Maputo on Tuesday morning. (We also spent another few hours in a much less wet Inhambane, gorging ourselves on pesto pizza and mozzarella sticks at a little cafĂ©.) Tuesday, after everyone else had left early to go back to Swaziland (they started leaving Sunday because of the weather), Rob and I went back to Maputo for the day, which was nice. We met up with Peace Corps Malawi and Botswana, and talked to two aid workers living in Zimbabwe, which makes my life seem tame by comparison. We also had our clothes, all of which were soaking wet and moldy from the rains in Tofo, laundered at what has to be the most expensive Laundromat in the world (it was $27 for one load, wash and dry, and they stapled papers to every article of clothing I gave them, but it was literally the ONLY dryer we could find in the city). On our way back to Swaziland on Wednesday, I spent the rest of my Meticais (the Mozambican currency) on bootleg CDs, including “best of Enrique Iglesias, 1995-2008” and some mixed CDs featuring “Kiss Bown” (Chris Brown), “Maliaah Carei” (Mariah Carey) and “Rock sete” (Roxette). I even convinced the kombi driver to play them the whole 5 hour ride back to Manzini. Excellent.

For New Years a huge group of us went to House On Fire, the one “night club” in Swaziland, for the “Cheesy Mexican Fiesta” New Years party. To quote the flyer: “My cousin says to bring your inlaws and outlaws. Banditos, sling on a sombrero, dust off your poncho and unleash your inner mustache!...Other cousin says we can’t end the year without a donkey race. Arriba, arriba!” Despite the political incorrectness of the whole thing, it was nice to have “Mexican food” (as close as we’ll be getting here) and to play with sparklers and to get a champagne shower at midnight (the whole dance floor got sprayed from above). It was a good time. And we stayed out so late we got to walk home (to where another volunteer is house-sitting for the holidays) at sunrise! It was a nice end to vacation.

So, all things considered, I had a fabulous vacation and great holidays. It was wet and mildewy, frustrating and sunburny, but fun. And now I have a million pieces of Mozambican cloth (about 20 meters, actually) that I intend to turn into a quilt, not because I need one but because it would fill up lots of my empty afternoons. And it’s nice to be home, even though it appears that my house was a fly breeding ground in my absence. But, hey, this is Africa and you have to learn how to laugh about it (as you’re sitting under your mosquito net in the middle of the day trying to minimize the number of flies crawling on your face). It’s amazing how different my life is now from just 6 months ago…

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been here for just over 6 months, both because it’s flown by and because it feels like I’ve been here for a lifetime. Here’s what I’ve done since June 23, 2008:
--Adopted a new Swazi name and a new Swazi family;
--Learned a sufficient amount of siSwati, how to use public transportation, how to bathe in a bucket, how to live without running water and consistent electricity, how to be a woman in Swaziland, how to live alone, how to survive on Crystal Light and popcorn, and countless bits of trivia about South African rugby and cricket (thank you East Coast Radio);
--Taught English and Life Skills at Florence Christian Academy;
--Survived scabies, a nasty flea bite and 3 bee stings in the butt (I sat on them…);
--Witnessed the birth of goats and pigs (and the death of one of those goats);
--Rehabilitated a mangy, starving, one-eyed dog (and indirectly contributed to her impregnation);
--Read 38 novels and countless magazines, and wrote a novella of my own (this blog);
--Fenced in, plowed, planted and maintained a vegetable/herb garden;
--Redefined my concepts of hygiene, productiveness and normalcy;
--Completed 204 Sudokus, not counting the ones from newspapers;
--Killed 4 bats, 1 scorpion and 1 camera (twice);
--Listened to more Luther Vandross, Westlife, Dolly Parton and UB40 than ever before; and
--Made lots of new friends, including 35 fellow PCVs and a good number of small children.

6 months down, 20 to go.

I hope you all had fabulous holidays and birthdays (Damian, Erin, my fabulous Mother) and breaks from work/school, etc. In Swaziland, the holidays don’t end until the 12th so I’m bored out of my mind reading, studying for the GRE, hunting for bats (it’s not hard…I found one INSIDE my mosquito net on Thursday), not bathing, eating popcorn and taking 6 hour heat- and boredom-induced naps. It’s a tough life.

Love from the Swaz!


Dad said...

Love your blog. Really, it's quite entertaining. Unfortunately, you are having to endure all this disorder to provide us readers with subject matter. But it's worth it! Love you and miss you!

paadre said...

Hi Justine. Do you have pictures of Florence Christian Academy? My church is planning a short term missions outreach there during the Gauteng school holidays from April 02-05,2009. One of our elders actually schooled there many years ago. I am Anton Jacobs and my email address is