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Mozambique moans

December 31, 2009

Mozambique does not exactly charm the visitor on arrival. After a long and tiring journey from Senga Bay in Malawi, involving 7 different forms of transport, one bus breakdown, one matola with a punctured tyre, one police fine for being in the back of a pick-up truck and a fight with the border taxi mafia, we arrive at Mozambique immigration in a frazzled state to be met with every type of corruption imaginable. We are charged separately for the visa (no problem), for the official to stamp the visa (a bit ridiculous) and for the scrap of paper that we filled in to get the visa (taking the piss). One guy even attempts to convince me that I need to buy a separate visa for my baggage!

The last bus to the nearest town, Tete, has left hours earlier, so I manage to get us a lift with a lovely South African family, travelling in a posh 8-seater minibus-car thing. Before the car can go through the border, though, we’re stopped and asked for our passports, and Nick and I are asked for our yellow fever certificates. There is noticable disappointment when I managed to locate mine after rummaging around for some time (it’s the first time I’ve been asked for it in 7 countries). Then, they try to find fault with the certificate, with my passport – peering at me and then my photo and back. Reluctantly, they have to concede that all is in order. So then they start on the driver. He has his big folder of car documents ready and again there is no problem. “Ah, you have six people in the car, but where is the proof that this car holds so many?” one guard says, with excitement, winking at his colleagues, who chime in: “A very serious offence. It is a $700 fine if you cannot prove it.”

The car has two seats in front, and then two rows of three seats – not two benches, but six individual seats with separate seatbelts and headrests. There are two empty seats – it is probably the only car on the continent carrying fewer passengers than it was designed for. The driver doesn’t have a document specificlly specifying the number of seats his car has – presumably the manufacturer didn’t anticipate Mozambique border police not being able to count seats. The driver negotiates down his ‘fine’, pays a still-exhorbitant amount, and then after a couple more nonsense interrogations we are on our way.

We cross the Zambezi River after dark – delayed by many more army and police bribe-points – and say goodbye to our car family in Tete. It’s an unlovely town, the hottest in the country because of its low altitude, and swarming with prostitutes that decorate every street and its corner like baubles on a dead christmas tree. We head to the Zambezi Hotel, a place listed as affordable in our Lying Planet guidebook and find it now a $250 per night palace, so spend a good half hour wandering around with our heavy bags looking for somewhere that’s affordable. We end up staying in what is basically a brothel with no running water, broken windows and filthy sheets for a hefty price, and emerge early after almost no sleep – the night is full of by-the-hour guests coming and going (“don’t call them prostitutes, they’re clients,” the owner says indingnantly when we complain), and the other big annoyance is the cars and trucks with their soundsystems blaring that stop, engine running, window down, to haggle prices with the hookers.

Buses going south from Tete leave at 3 am, we’re told, there are none now. We stand in the heat at the side of the road trying to hitch, trying not to burn (the doxyxyclone we’re taking still for our malaria treatment makes me very sun sensitive), and desperate to leave Tete. The roads in this Christmas-New Year inbetween are pretty empty. Eventually we get lucky and a haulage truck picks us up. We squash into the hot airless bed at the back with other hitchers and our bags piled on top, and pay over the odds for the 6-hour journey to Chimoio. There, we discover that, as with Tete, the buses only leave at 3 am. We pay $25 to stay in a caravan until 2am, and again get no sleep because the beds are infested with thousands of ants. I comb them out of my hair and spray the sheets and pillows with choking pesticide and we lie, eyes streaming in the dark listening to the night watchman talking on his phone outside our window until it is time to get the bus. Which, of course, is a much smaller crappier version of the bus we bought tickets for.

Another sleepless night, another cramped journey brings us through the ghostly dew forests of early dawn to the searing heat of morning and into Vilanculos, a small beach village near to the marine national park at the Bazaruto Archipelago. We’ve come here for the diving and because we met a couple in Malawi who have rented a villa here and said we can stay in the sitting room on an airbed for a few days. We find the villa – it’s stunning and in an amazing spot on the beach. Only problem is, we can’t stay after all – the ever-present owner, a horribly aggressive South African woman, jumps on us straight away and tells us in no uncertain terms that we are not welcome. So we hunt through the town looking for a bed, the night before new year’s eve in South Africans’ most popular holiday destination at peak season. Everywhere is booked up except one $50 per night tiny room in a resort compound with grotty, shared coldwater showers and toilets. The buses leave the town at – yes – 3 am. We deliberate a short time and decide overpriced is better than a third night without sleep, and bite the bullet.

Top tip for anyone travelling through Southern Africa: be rich. If you can’t be rich, at least rent/buy/steal a car (everyone has vehicles here, usually a fancy 4WD although it’s not necessary) because the public transport is overpriced, uncomfortable and inconvenient, and bring a tent so you don’t have to fork out for expensive rooms with bedbugs.

Vilanculos, on a pretty but dirty beach, is a small and unappealing town strewn with rubbish and jammed with 4WDs full of rich South Africans who have inexplicably chosen to stay here. Two years ago, a typhoon wrecked the town, which was apparently very nice before. But I find it hard to believe it was ever that pretty here. Still, we’ll stay here for new year.

My Portuguese is improving – handy for Brazil, later – but it’s hard to communicate with the local people beyond initial pleasantries. The music in Mozambique is fanatastic, great beats, lovely voices – the kind of tunes that set your legs twitching to dance. And now that we’re away from the national food – which we’ve been told is burger and chips or chicken and chips – to the coastal food, things are definitely improving. Heaped plates of jumbo prawns, stuffed crab, piri piri sauce, spicy chorizo – tasty. There is again little in the way of fruit or vegetables in cafes and restaurants here. The markets are full of tasty plant matter, so I buy my fruit there, but without self-catering facilities, making salads is difficult. But, as we approach South Africa, it’s becoming easier and cheaper to buy the concentrated fruit juice brand I like – the only one not loaded with masses of sugar.

The change in landscape is immediately obvious once you cross the Zambezi. North, especially in Malawi, most of the land is farmed in regular rows of green crops; south and it’s scrub forest, dry with a few struggling plots of cassava or banana. Perhaps that’s why it’s so difficult to get a salad or veggies with a meal. But it was just as hard in Malawi and Tanzania, unless you wanted beans. Strange.

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