Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Portuguese Egg Tarts in Maputo, Mozambique

The day I go to Mozambique, or at least thought I would! I spend the morning relaxing, not having to jump out of the window this time, so can walk over to the Sandton Mall, to use Seattle Coffee Company, with their 15 minute internet trials. I even got all my podcasts down, Happy Fish would appear to be tolerant of a fifteen second gap in connectivity. Back to Travis’, his friend, Violet, is coming over and taking him to a wedding, and she’ll drop me somewhere so I can get into town for a bus to Pretoria.

They call him ‘Bama

Once we’re all in her 4x4, almost by chance I mention that I’m going to Pretoria on the bus. But that’s where we’re going, she exclaims. Excellent, I have a ride then! I still haven’t heard from Thabiso and Malebogo. They’re going to be late, as they have a 3-4 hour drive down from Gabs. Given that I’ve got time, Violet invites me to the wedding too, it’s in a township in Malepopo, apparently the place where Violet goes to reclaim her car if it ever gets hijacked! The wedding is a black wedding, and everyone is friendly, even if it is strange that Violet turns up with the only two white guys in the whole region! Food and beer is plentiful, and there’s lots of singing going on, apparently with the women present offering advice to the wife about how to please her man.

Making grits, traditional Alabama fare

I get a call. It would seem there are complications with cars in Botswana. They’re not coming. What a mess. We leave the wedding, and head down to Hatfield, to a place called Divas and Dons, for some drinks and food. Violet invites her friend to join us, Lebu, but she shows up just as I invite Diyana, a Mozambicana girl who is sitting on her own, to join our table. It seems to be a bit frosty at my end of the table for a while, but it’s worth it to hear Diyana’s cute accent – apparently everything “izzz verrrry niiiyyyce”. Later we swing by her friend Miriam’s house, who plies us with dodgy sweet rose wine and a strange sandwich with achar pickle, which tastes like a spicy gone-off mango chutney, and all sorts of other things. Travis doesn’t eat much of his, but I kinda like it! At midnight, it’s his birthday, and we toast and congratulate before heading back home – he’s had a long day and plenty of booze. Violet says I won’t get into the club she’s going to wearing Crocs, so I hit the sack too.

In the morning, I check out buses and flights to Maputo. Bus is 250r, takes 8-9 hours, and is sold out for the next few days. Flight is 1,000r, takes less than an hour, and I can leave tomorrow. I book the flight. The weather is strange today, it’s cool, and raining most of the day. Violet, and her friend Audrey swing by, and Travis makes them grits, a maize dish not dissimilar to pap or sticky cous-cous, which he made for me the previous day.

Anna, an English friend, pops by too, and we spend the day lazing about, drinking beer, and finishing with pizzas. In the morning, Audrey kindly takes me to the airport.

Johannesburg airport is rather chaotic at the moment, as there’s lots of pre-2010 World Cup construction going on. Inside, I find a queue in front of the economy check in area, join and wait a while before realising that this is the plastic wrapping queue. Yes a long queue, perhaps 25 people long, waiting to get cling-film put round their bags. I don’t know why people don’t do it at home! Anyway, the short queue for check in takes a while as there is just one person doing economy check-in for South African Airways in their hub airport. I finally make it to the check in desk, and the girl goes through the usual formalities, putting the baggage tag on my bag, sticking it against my advice on the flimsy piece of elastic that is part of my rain-cover. I make a mental note of her name so I can sue her personally when my bag goes missing.

Just as we’re seemingly done, she suddenly says abruptly “Where's your ticket?”. I don’t have one, it’s an e-ticket, I reply. Well I need your e-ticket confirmation number, she says. I reply that I have a booking code that the SAA website texted me immediately on booking. No, I have that too, she says, I need a ticket. Well what’s the point of booking on the internet if you need a ticket, I don’t say, instead asking her how I resolve this. I suggest going to the reservations desk, which she agrees with, telling me I have to take my main bag with me. The reservations desk woman is stroppy with me as I skip the long queue by going to the First and Business part, but I tell her the other lady told me to do this. She grumpily prints out my ticket, and I return back to wait more to finish check-in. Not impressive, SAA.

Inside, I find there’s nowhere to eat except a coffee bar with a couple of overpriced sandwiches. The Oceans Basket outlet is outside security and in the domestic area. Damn, I was so looking forward to it! Anyway, no choice, I wait for my flight, which eventually leaves somewhat late, supposedly due to bad weather conditions. I have a nice snooze on the way to Maputo, interrupted only by the serving of a box of fruit juice and a tiny salad, the drinks trolley apparently only being for business class passengers.

At Maputo we walk over to the terminal building, a no-nonsense approach that I greatly prefer to being herded on to an overcrowded bus for a fifteen second drive to the terminal. Inside the first check we hit is a Yellow Fever Vaccination check, the first time this has ever happened to me. I do have the vaccination, as it’s needed for some countries in South America (though I later discovered that if you don’t have it, they just give it to you, at far cheaper cost than the UK!). Anyway, they didn’t ask to see my vaccination card, as a glance at my passport as being British was apparently enough to ensure I wasn’t carrying the disease.

Next, the immigration official puts in an arrival sticker, taking another half a page of my passport, then stamps inefficiently in the remaining half! So if I hadn’t pulled out the incorrect visa sticker, Mozambique would now be occupying 2 ½ pages of my passport! Don’t they realise how much these damn things cost?! Outside it’s hot and humid. No sign of Fatima’s Backpacker pickup, so I find an ATM, take out 5,000 Meticals (exchange rate 45 to the pound), and then look for a shop selling SIM cards, which I find at the far end of the terminal. The beautiful and friendly Nima advises me to use mCel not Vodacom, and helps me to put it in and switch the language to English. Somewhat embarrassingly, having lugged my bag about in the heat, and now being in the airless stuffy building, I am sweating like a pig, but she doesn’t seem to mind! She gives me her number and offers to help me out if I get stuck.

Back outside, I call Fatima’s, who tell me the pickup will be in about 10 minutes, so I wait. And wait. Speaking to some of the guys there, I find that they can understand some Tsetswana (Botswanan language) words. The key word for me though is paciencia, the Portugese for patience, which apparently you need bundles of in Mozambique. I wait and wait, and call a few times, each time being assured that the pickup is there and will be turning up in a couple of minutes. A chap asks me why I’m still sitting here, and when I tell him I’m practicing paciencia he even says to me that three hours is a bit too much paciencia! I ring for a final time, and tell the guy I’m beginning to get a bit annoyed, when the van turns up. Another five minutes and I was leaving for another place in a taxi.

The rains start

The hostel, Fatima’s, has a mixed crowd of mostly foreigners staying. It’s a chaotic place, obviously having grown up over time. I pay 150 SA rand for two nights when checking in, but am not really given a tour of the place like one normally is. I order a “Dois M”, or 2M beer, and meet the Afrikaans chaps I’m sharing a room with. The room is hot and cramped. I can’t see myself staying here for an extended period of time. I decide to head out and look for these infamous giant prawns that put Maputo on the global food map, but am stopped by a torrential downpour which starts just as I head across towards the gate. Just coming in is Edma, a girl who has some friends she’s meeting here, so we agree to have a beer together until the rain stops. She estimates it will only be for five minutes or so. It doesn’t stop till the early hours of the morning.


Edma, the third Mozambicana girl I’ve met, is every bit as lovely as the previous two, or in the local dialect, “Izzz very nice”! I had been told before coming here that taking a girl to Mozambique is like taking sand to the beach, and I can understand the sentiment. The girls here are all dark chocolate coloured, with big gleaming smiles and beautiful eyes. Not to everyone’s tastes, for sure, but I certainly feel at home! Anyway, Edma has trouble understanding my English, being used to American or South African dialects. She, and the Brazilian guys she’s friends with, all like the sound of “proper” English, as well they should, of course.

She talks about what is going on in Maputo, with performances at the Nucleo de Art, but it would seem most things were happening yesterday! Monday is a quiet night in Maputo. I use my phone to call Malebogo to see how she is, and how severely she’s beaten Thabiso for ruining our carefully crafted plans for this trip. Apparently not so badly. I suspect she used the ultimate weapon, i.e. the feminine “I’m not angry, I’m just very disappointed”, a marvellous guilt-laden knife through the heart!! Talking to her uses up all my credit, but it’s good to hear from her. We haven’t entirely given up on the idea of Thabiso and her coming over, possibly with Thabiso’s half-sister Sthwanda.

Although I’ve used up all my credit with this call, I still seem to have plenty of free minutes and sms’s, which only work for local calls. They seem to be big on bonus minutes etc here. We sit, and the Brazilian guys play music, as we all drink 2M, or Laurentina in Edma’s case, the “other” lager. The Brazilian guys are friendly, but after Edma has gone they do screw me by using my money to buy themselves beers, which leaves me with a slightly sour note.

As soon as the sun goes down, the mosquitoes are out in force. Clouds of the buggers. Remember that the whole of Mozambique is a malarial zone, and malaria varies in seriousness, with the worst, celebral malaria, leading to death within 24 hours. It’s not a disease to take lightly. Prevention is the best, avoiding being bitten in the first place, but with the numbers of mosquitos out, I realise that it’s unavoidable, so drugs are the only way – I’m on doxycycline, which is the cheapest one, but also a general purpose antibiotic. In South Africa I needed a prescription to buy it, but no such issues here, so I now have plenty. Anyway, I shall be taking these pills diligently every day.

I hit the sack in the end, and try my best to use the net which is rigged up underneath the top bunk bed, not really giving it enough clearance for me. Anyway.. the rain continues on….

A Busy Day on the Streets of Maputo
In the morning, I try to get up at a respectable hour, despite having been disturbed by a couple of girls leaving very early. I take my bags which I had left in the “safe”, i.e. cupboard behind reception, as there’s little security inside Fatima’s. I stuff my main bag under my bed, which is probably fairly good protection, as I have to lift the bunk bed to get it under there. I need a single room. This one is cramped, and dirty, and the bathrooms are not that clean either.

I walk out on to the street. The plan for today is to try to apply for a Tanzanian visa. There’s no urgency, as I’m now planning to be in Maputo for Xmas, but might as well get it done in case they close the embassy for a period, as with the lazy Mozambique embassy in South Africa. What are you supposed to do, if, being British, you need a visa before you go to the border, but the embassy is closed? Fly back to the UK? Or more likely, just not go to a country with such a ridiculous visa programme. Anyway, rant over!

The streets across all of Maputo are generally tarmacked, but of a very poor quality, with potholes and rubble everywhere, especially on the pavements, most of which look like tanks have been driving up and down them. Mozambique had a bloody civil war about twenty years ago – is this the legacy from then? More on the history when I’ve done some research myself.

There’s also rubbish everywhere. Piled up by bins as if the rubbish collections have been suspended, but also strewn along the streets and any open areas. They need to ask Botswana what the secret is of keeping streets clean when your citizens are messy!

The buildings are mostly communist-style blocks, often in faded pastel colours, many with rot or mould stains from the tropical humidity they experience here. It’s a little like Burma. Sitting along the streets are many fruit and vegetable sellers, and their products look very nice actually. In general, Mozambicano people have very dark skins, big eyes, and wear quite smart clothes – there are plenty of suits about, which you wouldn’t expect from the surroundings.

I turn left off Mao Tse Tung Street on to Vladimir Lenin Street! Yes, Adrian would feel at home here. There are lots of armed guards about, mainly near banks or the more affluent shops. My first stop is the Notario, where I need to make a notarised copy of my passport – effectively an authorised one that I can carry in place of my passport. It’s compulsory to carry ID at all times here, and the likelyhood is that the Tanzanian embassy will want my passport, so this is the solution.

Downstairs in the small Notario building, I hand my passport through a metal grill to a chap doing photocopies. He charges me 2M (no, not the beer) for a single copy of my photo page. I then realise I’ll probably need my Mz Visa page too, so ask for a copy of that. He only charges me 1M for this second copy. I don’t understand!

Upstairs, I join a long queue snaking up the stairs into a cramped office, itself full of people waiting around for their copies to be produced. A chap who is clearly not an official tries to “help” me, but I suspect there would have been a fee for this, so I refuse and remain in the queue. Behind a counter sit four or five women, all busy doing things, one receiving documents and cash, one handing out finished notarised copies, and it’s not clear what the others are up to. I’m surprised to find that they don't check the original documents?! So I could doctor any old photocopy of a passport, have it notarised, and away we go! Seems like a silly system.

The lady tells me with the aid of a calculator that the charge is 8.50M, so I’m surprised when she gives me 190M back from 200? When did the price become 10, or is she taking her “cut”, or do people always round like this here. I don’t understand, and my Portuguese is not up to querying! I then mill about with the twenty or so others, all of us wondering what takes so long? Especially when the finished product turns out to be an illegible blue stamp with a scribble on it, and a hard pressed stamp which one can hardly make out either.

Next a walk to the Tanzania Embassy, where a chap who doesn’t speak any English issues me with two identical forms to fill out, then tells me the charge is 50 US$, though I heard this as 5th floor, so kept looking for the lift or staircase, until a girl turned up who could speak English. They don’t take meticals or rands, so once again one can see that it’s always worth having a stack of dollars to hand when travelling anywhere, there have been so many occasions when they’ve got me out of a fix. And hey, at today’s rates, they’re cheap too!

The visa will be ready in two days, the pretty girl behind the counter says, as she teaches me a couple of Swahili words. I’ll be back! I head round the corner to a cafĂ© where after explaining that I’ve just arrived here, and it’s my first time in Mozambique, the waitress chooses a toasted cheese and ham sandwich for me! I enjoy this with a cappuccino, brought along with no less than *three* sachets of sugar! Clearly a sweet-toothed country!

Next, a Portugese egg tart, or pastel nata. I cannot explain how good this is, except to say that when I ordered it, the waitresses exclaimed in delight “Ahhh es multo bon!” (Ahhh it’s verrry good!).

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