Published: July 14th 2010May 16th 2010
Crossing from Malawi to Mozambique I get a little rush. Despite an excellent travel partner for the last month it feels good to be exploring on my own again. There's also a certain thrill to be had in entering a country in which once again I have no grasp of the language - Mozambique is a former Portuguese colony rather than the predominantly English ones I've visited recently - and very little knowledge about the place full stop. To the best of my recollection the first minibus ('chapa') I take once in Mozambique sets a personal record: 28 people in a 14 seater, plus driver. Fitting all the luggage inside along with the passengers resembles the failing attempts to salvage a game of Tetris on the blink. Every square inch of space is swiftly swamped as more and more baggage piles in behind. Yet still there never seems to be quite enough room. Legroom? Don't make me laugh.
I pass an unavoidable night in Cuamba before catching the day long train eastwards to Nampula at 5am. Excruciatingly early transport is a common theme across Mozambique, but when many people have to travel great distances - look at a map, it's
These two followed us around all day as self-appointed bodyguards
a big country! - and avoid the roasting daytime temperatures, this sort of makes sense. I settle into a suspiciously empty compartment near the front of the train and sure enough an attendant soon comes to eject me from what is apparently a male staff only cabin. Perhaps I'm just a little bleary-eyed, or maybe the darkness defeats me, but I don't see any markings on or by any of the doors. He tells me I am in "B" (though quite where it says this on my ticket is also a mystery).
"So where is 'B' then?"
"Ok, but where?"
"Yes, but where that way, how far?"
"Ok, but there are no markings. How do I know which is 'B'?"
His job is to help. Someone obviously neglected to inform him of this. We continue fruitlessly for a minute or two before a more compliant staff member points me towards the compartment only two doors along. I plonk myself down with some unsavoury grumbling to discover two girls my age from New Zealand co-habiting the compartment. A and B are both endearingly eccentric and very funny. With their company and the
assistance of a short nap the journey to Nampula flies by. Train journeys may take twice as long (at best) as buses in Africa but they invariably pass by more pleasantly.
I decide to stick with these two in Nampula the next day rather than head straight to Ilha, which is only about three or four hours way, offering very little help other than moral support while they sort out some frustrating and important problems. We are told that the internet across Mozambique is down and has been for some time so phone calls are necessary. Things get a little desperate and at random A asks to borrow the phone of some Portuguese girls sitting having coffee. Every cloud it would seem has a silver lining. They are working and living on Ilha for a few months and offer us a place to stay without a second thought.
Ilha de Moçambique is undoubtedly one of my favourite stops so far on this trip. It is tiny, only 3km long and with a maximum width of less than 500m, which means it quickly becomes soothingly familiar. Originally an Arab trading base - the name Mozambique, adopted by the Portuguese
first for the island and then used for the country when they took control of vast swathes of the mainland, is actually derived from a former Arab sultan of the island - it was discovered by Vasco de Gama in 1498 before being formally taken over by the Portuguese in 1507. Consequently it is covered in ancient and august, crumbling, colonial architecture that embarrasses even the atmospheric French Quarter of Djibouti City in terms of aesthetic character. This is complimented by some gorgeous beaches, though most are used as public toilets by the locals and therefore a bit of street savvy is necessary to give certain spots a wide berth. The large yellow house which our Portuguese hosts live is charming and spacious though like everywhere on the island, ridiculously hot. Until we get a fan sorted I frequently find myself waking up in a puddle of sweat. On the other hand, I'm not the only one suffering from the heat and when not working the six girls in the house spend much of the day wandering about in only bikinis. Why is my life so hard?!
I had originally planned to stay one or two days on Ilha.
I stay ten. It's quite a tough place to leave. Free accommodation. Cheap food. Beautiful surroundings. Fantastic weather. Excellent company. It's difficult to ask for much more! In fact I begin to fear what Karma has lined up in store for me. I almost dare not say that on a couple of occasions I do get quite bored, though I suspect that this has more to do with my love of movement and increasing frustration with how static I've been recently rather than any deficiencies in Ilha. Probably the most eventful things that happen are watching a guy trying to club someone over the head with a concrete slab during a fight outside a bar, and getting locked out of the house.
The island must be the most photogenic place I've ever visited - for the first time I'm obliged to break my rule of uploading no more than one page's worth of pictures to the blog; I simply couldn't choose which to leave out. Fortunately one of my hosts lends me her rather juicy SLR so that I can make the most of the photographic opportunities available. My camera is most often drawn to the copious children who
scamper round the idyllic island all day long. I can't imagine a more serene and safe environment to bring up a child in this country and the place is teeming with them. I'm used to children asking me to take their picture from time to time but on Ilha their insistence reaches unparalleled levels. Usually I can't stroll here for more than ten metres without hearing calls of "Photo! Photo!" If I take a snap of one they all rush in to look at the screen and smudge it, pointing with their fingers and laughing, before they each take a step back and frantically point at themselves, demanding gleefully to go next. If I capture a group of them together, in they will charge once more before all screaming with joy at seeing themselves, turning and dashing away with animated hoots of ecstasy. It's an unadulterated pleasure to create so much happiness, especially with something so simple, but then I suppose that many of these kids will never have seen their own image before. There's no glass anywhere on Ilha, except the murky brown stuff of the plentiful beer bottles. Where else do they get a chance to check themselves
out? What a wonderful moment that must be; to see your own face for the first time.
There are more photos below