A Ilha bonita

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August 23rd 2009
Published: October 28th 2009
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I reach the chapa park at an awkward time. The chapa to Ilha is already nearly full, meaning the boon of an imminent departure, but the vehicle is one where the front row of seats and an uncomfortable backwards-facing bench share legroom that is only adequate for one or the other. It's to the disappointment of all that my long legs are added to this mix. A foreign couple comfortably settled on the back seat view me with undisguised contempt, marking them out as French.

The journey to Ilha is fortunately on a decent road, meaning the battle to prevent my right foot from going numb lasts only 2.5 hours. I'm relieved when, twisting round to face the front, I see the causeway leading over to the island. There's a slalom course of red and white oil drums to be negotiated before we reach Ilha itself, and the conductor then helpfully asks everyone where they are going so we are each dropped off at the door. I find myself cursing tourists in general when the first three guesthouses I try are all full, however it turns out to be a case of fourth time lucky when I meet the Italian
Red, white, and blueRed, white, and blueRed, white, and blue

Palace of Sao Paolo
architect owner of Casa do Gabriel and he gives me the glad tidings that he does indeed have an available room. It's a good 'un too - small but spotless and equipped with a cavernous mossie net (of course ...) and a plush towel. The adjacent shared bathroom is enormous, dwarfing the bedroom. The whole building is most picturesque, and the pleasure is in the details - clam shell soapdishes, oversized reed lampshades, a dugout canoe-cum-couch suspended from the roof beams.

Having avoided Lamu in Kenya and Zanzibar in Tanzania because they sounded spoiled by mass tourism, Ilha is to be my only taste of the "Swahili coast", that stretch of littoral to which traders from Arabia, Europe, and even China have been drawn over the last millenium, giving rise to the Swahili language and possessing a slaving legacy pre-dating that of West Africa. Ilha was the capital of Portuguese East Africa, from where not just Mozambique but also Goa in India were administered, so naturally the influence here is predominantly Portuguese. This is present in the colonial architecture, most of it abandoned and overgrown, the early afternoon sesta, and of course the language. Non-European influence is implicit in

Casa do Gabriel
the fact that 95%!o(MISSING)f the island's population is Muslim, the nearest mosque to my room being just 50m away and ensuring I never want for a 4AM wake-up call.

I'm reminded very much of South American towns such as Arequipa by the prevalence of pastel buildings and copious use of whitewash, mild colours that strike the eye with force in the fierce sunlight and with the sky's deep blue for contrast. But many of the colonial remnants are in disrepair, claimed by trees and plants and awaiting the salvation of a rich European with a bent for restoration. More indigenous is the makuti (reed) town, a warren of small homes with thick thatched roofs.

To walk the streets of Ilha is to sample the faded grandeur of one of Europe's oldest colonial outposts. The island is a backwater now - I wouldn't even be able to state categorically that tourism is a bigger industry than fishing - and the appearance of a car is a rude interruption. Day and night, local people sit in doorways chatting, the main interest in the passing foreigner coming from children, who often put on an impromptu dance. It's a slow pace of life, the island one of those rare, magical places where the rest of the world seems not just impossibly distant but actually non-existent. I'm not surprised to find myself idling a week away there, even when an influx of prebooked Italians means I have to decamp to an inferior guesthouse where the owner's wife chooses to react to my poor Portuguese by never reducing the speed of her delivery and becoming increasingly irritated at my lack of comprehension.

Ilha is further east than the easternmost part of Tanzania, though the latter is three hours ahead of GMT and Mozambique only two. This means sunrises and sunsets both at around 5, which I find disorienting, and the cycle of the sun begins to dictate the rhythm of my own life, with me rising soon after sunrise and having dinner when the sun has barely disappeared below the horizon. The island is quite different by night, the clarity of the stars and Milky Way not enough to illuminate lanes and alleys that are only sparingly equipped with streetlights.

The most impressive building that I see is the Church of St Paul, whose bright red walls and steeple are the only real use of that colour that I see on the entire island. There's an attached palace that was turned into a museum shortly after independence. It contains artefacts from Portugal's other overseas colonies - Goan furniture, Macanese vases - plus occasional incongruities like an Aga.

The church itself is no longer in use but has an impressive altar-piece, and the pulpit is ornately carved. The complex also contains a Maritime Museum (closed for renovations) and a Museum of Sacred Art (I told the guardian I spoke no Portuguese, but he happily babbled on in Portuguese during the short tour). There's also a second church, the Church of the Misericordia, which is still in active use and has such a blindingly white exterior as to force you to crinkle up your eyes when looking at it. The oldest standing European building in the southern hemisphere is a church adjacent to the Fort of Sao Sebastiao at the north end of the island, but sadly the fort itself is closed for renovations.

Elsewhere on the island I find cobbles in a pattern I last saw in Macao. Whatever time I'm out and about, the place seems to have more schoolkids than any other part of the age demographic. I see many white-faced women with muciro face paint, part beauty treatment part beauty. Their brightly coloured clothes are further eye candy.

Less appealingly, the beach seems to be one enormous venue for depositing number twos.

I meet a Peace Corps volunteer, S, just finished her stint in Malawi, who puts into perspective my annoyance about always being "the white guy". She says that the prevailing attitude, at least in Malawi, is that Indians will cheat you, whereas (East) Asians will eat your babies. It seems as though African-American PC volunteers are also generally disappointed by Africa because their skin colour - the main source of why they may feel marginalised in the US - is unimportant in Africa. It's everything else about them that marks them out as foreigners and ensures they don't feel at home here either. On balance, it would appear that being a white foreigner here is the best kind of foreigner to be. Though obviously not an albino, as then you might be murdered so your body parts can be harvested for magic rituals.

The Golden Anchor cafe is one of the main foreigner hang-outs on the island, and over the course of the week I find within myself an appetite for prawns that has never previously surfaced in 38.5 years of existence. Africa is most definitely changing me.

It's tremendously difficult to drag myself away from Ilha. It's one of those places that provides a compelling argument for stopping travelling and putting down some roots. But I can't let my thoughts turn to such pleasant fantasies when my African jaunt is not yet complete. So it's back to Nampula in an early morning chapa.

My regret lingers for weeks.

Dull but possibly useful info
i. Chapas to Ilha leave from the minibus park east of the railway station on Ave do Trabalho, about 15 mins' walk from Residencial Farhana. No idea when the last leaves but I got there just after 7AM and we left about 20 mins later. It cost M150 but this is probably negotiable especially if there's more than one of you. It took about 3 hours. Not sure if all the chapas do this, but the conductor asked everyone where they wanted to go to so, for the tourists, we were each dropped at the door of our guesthouses.
ii. Probably best to book in advance if you have your heart set on a particular accommodation. The first three places I tried were all full, which was good luck as otherwise I wouldn't have ended up at Casa do Gabriel (aka Patio dos Quintalinhos). Paid M600 for a room with double bed, cavernous mossie net, towel, soap, bog roll, adjacent shared bathroom (cold water only), and brekkie of bread, butter, marmalade, and tea. A lovely building but then again the owner is an architect by profession ...
iii. At this time of year, sunrise is at about 5:30AM and sunset at 5PM. If you're staying at Casa do Gabriel, make sure you claim a place on the roof terrace well in advance of sunset, for a great view.
iv. The light here is superstrong so make sure you have a polarising filter with you.
v. There's Internet in the Telecom building just to the east of the Church of Sao Paolo (i.e. the big red one) for M80 per hour.
vi. Foodwise, Cafe d'Ancora d'Ouro (opposite the Church of Misericordia, which is attached to the Church of Sao Paolo) is the best combination of decent prices and comfy setting. Would NOT recommend their sausages and mash - the sausages look like hot dogs and taste like dogs. The main downer is it's a popular place for the island's touts to accost you while you eat/drink/mind your own business.
vii. The Fort of Sao Sebastiao is closed until 2010 for renovations.
viii. The palace/church of Sao Paolo/Museum of Sacred Art/Maritime Museum can be visited on one M100 ticket. You have to have a guide for the palace section - an English-speaking guide is available and was good. You have to have a guide for the Museum of Sacred Art but he only speaks Portuguese. The Maritime Museum was closed for renovations when I visited but it reopened the following week. The Church of the Misericordia can be visited when there's a mass (6PM most days, I think).
ix. Also stayed at Casa de Luis (now called Omakthini) near Casa do Gabriel, paying M600 for a room. The room had a mossie net and a fan but no towel, the breakfast was a bread roll, an omelette and tea/coffee, and the shared bathrooms were small and dark. Luis himself speaks OK English and is friendly - his wife speaks some English but prefers Portuguese and doesn't cut you any slack if you aren't fluent. I would say that Casa do Gabriel is much better value but Casa de Luis is more sociable (Gabriel seems to get Italians, couples, and families whereas Luis gets more independent travellers).

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28th October 2009

Love your photos. :)
28th October 2009

Great photos!

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