Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Getting under Maputo's skin

Fresh OJ and cake
A lot of people were surprised that with nearly a week in Mozambique, I "only" planned to visit Maputo.  I'll admit to a certain laziness: it took a lot out of me to plan my four weeks in South Africa, and by the time it was all settled, I was in no mood to hash out a bunch more details for the final week.  But mainly it was a calculated move: while travelling obviously centers on movement, some of the best experiences come from staying in one place for a little while.  Major cities particularly lend themselves to slow exploration.  It takes several days for any interesting city to begin to reveal its secrets, and some of my favorite adventures abroad have involved simply sitting still in various big cities.  I spent almost a week in Buenos Aires, but when people ask me what I did, all I can say is "have lunch."  Italian and Spanish influences there mean that "lunch" is typically a two- or three-hour affair involving wine, multiple courses, coffee, and long conversations.   I happened to arrive the day the president resigned in an almost-coup, causing people to linger even longer over their gnocchi and Malbec.  I would go into small, dark, smoky restaurants and just listen and learn.  I had enough Spanish to stay in the conversation, and enough obvious foreigner-ness to be welcome and indulged.

Watching the world go by
Every city has a trick, a secret strategy revealed only to natives or attentive visitors, a specialty that makes it bearable and fun.  In New York it's the subway.  In Paris, bakeries.  In Rio, cold beer and buffets.  In Detroit, free parking.  In Moscow, snack kiosks.  Maputo, it turns out, is one of the world's great places for street side cafes.  This is thanks, no doubt, to the Portuguese influence, yet it seems to be a bigger deal in Maputo even than in Lisbon.  And it's a bit surprising; in most African cities I know--as in most of the developing world--there's nothing but instant coffee, even if they grow the beans a few miles away.  Moreover, in much of Africa it's a bit hard to find any restaurants, because the locals are too poor to eat out, and any ingredients beyond the most basic--corn, bananas, avocados--are too dear or exotic.  Sitting on the sidewalk sipping espresso and munching on sweet rolls while a barefoot boy hand-washes a car parked in front seems a bit incongruous, but so it goes.  I was excited for real coffee after South Africa, where it's all tea or instant, and I'm rarely one to rebuff a decent pastry, but the real glory of al fresco drinking and snacking in Maputo is that it gives you an otherwise impossible chance to watch the world go by without yourself becoming the center of attention.

Gringo trap

Of course Maputo isn't all coffee and croissants.  It's extremely "African" compared to South Africa--where you could often fool yourself into thinking you're in Europe.  For starters, there are virtually no white people.  There are some who seem to be of mixed parentage between Portuguese and Shona, or another tribe, but they're relatively rare.  (The owner of my hotel seemed to have this sort of heritage, as did the owners or managers of several restaurants and other businesses; why is it that wherever you go in the world, darker-skinned people work for lighter-skinned people?)

Two guys who actually wanted a photo
People are significantly less friendly than in the townships of Port Elizabeth ("the friendly city").  In part this is probably because Maputo is a major city, but in part it also seems to be cultural: Shona (Mozambique) are a bit standoffish where Xhosa (South Africa) cultivate greetings and little courtesies.  It may also be historical: since Mozambique never had apartheid, the locals have no reason to react strongly to a white man, whereas in South Africa it was traditionally so rare for a white man to enter a township, or greet a black man as an equal, that it still feels like flattery when it happens now.  At the Maputo market this lack of pushiness became a real advantage: nowhere else have I been able to browse souvenirs with so little hassle.

PiƱa coladas, anyone?
Tuk-tuk taxi stand
 It's always fascinating to me how cities concentrate and swirl so many strong, disparate things together. Maputo became a kind of living poem after a few days, a repeating loop of images never exactly the same yet similar enough to reinforce themselves.  The faint smell of sewage nearly everywhere.  Sidewalks that collapse into rubble or sand every few steps.  Security guards at every door--I saw one outside a liquor store, about 10 pm, asleep at his post.  Men in gleaming dress shoes; shoe shine boys on every corner.  Yellow-and-green tuk-tuks and full-size taxis painted to match.  Ave. Lenin, Ave Karl Marx, Ave. Salvador Allende. . . every street named after a Communist.  Always walking downhill to the bay and yet somehow uphill to the ocean on the other side.  A walking shopping mall passing before your table.  Women carrying bananas, bread, laundry, shopping bags, stools on their heads.  Long batik skirts for ladies and pressed jeans for men.  The perfect, just-warm-enough-to-break-a-sweat-if-you-rush air.  The sun suddenly vanished by 6 pm.  The "chewy" beauty of Portuguese.

Bougainvillea adorning the street
Very few tourists make it to Mozambique, and those who do often book into all-inclusive beach holidays that keep them off the streets.  One of the real pleasures of Maputo for me, then, was how un-touristy it is.  In part because of this, it's surprisingly expensive, and doesn't exactly bristle with visitor services.  My hotel cost nearly double what my one in Port Elizabeth had; it had a nice family charm, but was definitely a couple notches lower in luxury.  Yet it's extremely popular with foreigners, because there's hardly anywhere else to stay.  After a couple days I began to realize that it didn't much matter where I ate, because I was going to get French fries, an ornamental salad, and either chicken or shrimp just about everywhere.  This is not to say the food wasn't good, or that people don't care about it, but that the concept of actively attracting clientele, which is taken for granted in so many places, is largely absent.
Friendly fishmonger

The trouble with traveling--for me, at least--is that the longer I do it, the more time I seem to need.  Four days in Maputo seemed excessive to everyone else, but by the end I needed more time.  I'd ticked off all the sites, but I had only begun to get under the city's skin.  The paradox of foreigner-ness--that you can see both more and less of a place where you don't belong--was intensified by Portuguese, which I don't really speak at all, but can often fake with high success through Spanish.  At times I was too clumsy, or they were too rigid, or both, and we were pushed apart by both culture and language.   But when they were open to my mistakes, and I worked at getting past people's initial hesitancy, I made some great connections.  

Thursday, August 15, 2013


She'll be comin' round the mountain when she comes. . .
Five years ago, I was about to order lunch at a German restaurant a long walk from my hostel in suburban Johannesburg, when one of my tour-mates called to invite me to a reunion downtown.  I was so inent on the menu, and relatively short on time, that I almost turned her down.  But after many group tours, this was the first time anyone had managed a post-tour gathering.  What's more, this particular tour had been run by a certifiable Afrikaans lady, and we were all primed to kvetch.  So I chugged my beer, rushed back to the hostel, called a taxi, and met up with the group.

2nd class berth (4 spots all to myself)
When the opportunity arose to visit South Africa a second time, I thought I'd save myself the trouble of comparing dozens of lodging options and simply re-book at Diamond Diggers, where I'd been before.  With any luck, the German restaurant would still be there, and I could pick up where I'd left off.  I've long harbored a fantasy of flying to Paris (and back) for a dinner date, but now that the Concorde is no more, this is much more challenging.  Completing a meal begun five years earlier on the other side of the world wouldn't be a bad substitute, however.

The backside of Port Elizabeth
Apparently someone didn't want this to be, because the train from Port Elizabeth, scheduled to arrive in Jo'burg at 11:35 am, experienced severe and persistent locomotive trouble, and didn't pull in until almost 7:00 pm.  My long-lost leisurely lunch quickly collapsed into a rapid dinner and early bedtime, in preparation for the 7:50 bus to Maputo the next morning.  It almost pained me to ask, but a guy at the hostel confirmed that the German restaurant was still there: "really fun," he declared, but too far to walk at night.  The manager claimed to remember me, even though he'd only been there for three years; they'd sold the part where I'd stayed before--which included a little bar I was hoping to hole up in--but he suggested a Portuguese restaurant right across the street, which was excellent, and probably much harder to find at home than German food.  Still, delectable clams, codfish, and flan couldn't quite stifle the call of wurst, kraut, and spaetzle.

Remind me why I should fly. . .
My bed neatly made up by the attendant

Portuguese restaurant resplendent with azulejos

The right bus at last
My bad luck continued the next morning, when, just as I was about to board, I was told that I'd been waiting for the wrong bus; although I'd bought the ticket there, at the Translux office, mine was in fact a "City to City" departure, run by a sister company on the other side of the terminal.  Since all departures to Maputo occur within half an hour of 8:00 am, it was now or never.  A great deal of harried negotiations ensued, including a porter advocating on my behalf to the bus conductor; the conductor coldly insisting his bus was full and I should get lost; going into the ticket office and getting a special authorization stamp from the cashier-lady--who shook her head in disgust: "Who sold you this ticket?!  Go back out there and show this to him [the conductor]!"; returning to the conductor for further rebuffs; dashing across the terminal with the help of another porter to find that the correct bus had already left; dashing back across to double-check that the mistaken bus was indeed full; waiting awkwardly with heavy bags as dozens of other impatient people pushed past; standing outside in the diesel fumes while other drivers asked where I was going; and then, suddenly, although I didn't realize it at first, magic happened.

A short, young, serious mulatto fellow in a Brazil ski cap and grubby clothes, who didn't look like he was in charge of anything, suddenly took an interest in my case, and started asking everybody and his brother, both in person and via cell phone, why they couldn't do X, Y, and Z to resolve it.  By this time I'd just about resigned myself to returning to Diamond Diggers and eating at that German restaurant after all, dagnubbit, but just when I was about to say "Thanks for your help; I'll come back tomorrow," Mr. Brazil started dragging me across the terminal again to wait by the side of yet another bus while he called ahead to one of the drivers to verify that if I got on the current bus, to Nelspruit, the driver up ahead would wait for me to switch and continue on to Maputo.  Mr. Brazil didn't exactly explain all this to me, and he was speaking either Portuguese or some African language on the phone and to the driver and porter in person, but this is what I gathered.

In the catbird seat

I probably should have given him a tip, but he was gone before I could even thank him.  It was like that scene in Pulp Fiction where Harvey Keitel, "The Wolf," shows up, announces, "My name is Winston Wolf.  I solve problems," fixes the impossible mess, and then disappears in a squeal of expensive tires.  There are plenty of annoyances to contend with while travelling, and people constitute a great many of them--pushy curio salesmen, streetside catcallers, waiters who pretend you're invisible--but there are also many times when people go out of their way--sometimes far, far out of their way--to be helpful. 

My fears that I'd be stuck on the wrong bus proved groundless, because the drivers of both the first and second busses took pains to explain and guide me.  The second driver apologized because the only seat available was the jump-seat right behind the windshield normally reserved for the conductor--but this seat affords spectacular views, and is in many ways more commodious than a normal seat.  At the border crossing, an older lady in the next seat led me almost by the hand, step by step, through the formalities.  When we finally disembarked in Maputo, and I asked a young woman, in Spanish masquerading as Portuguese, where Lumumba Street was, she answered in English.

Last call for groceries!
My faith in humanity was restored, but the journey was a doozy.  When we stopped at a highway junction just before Maputo, a major fracas ensued because one (or more) passengers were convinced their bags had been stolen or pilfered by other passengers.  It was hard for me not to chuckle at this, given the cornucopia people had brought on board, most of it acquired at a supermarket stop just before leaving South Africa: eggs by the 4 dozen; beets by the sack; cornmeal by the 20-lb. bag; rice; potato chips; soda; takeaway fried chicken; potatoes. . . everyone on board except me spent much of the journey shuffling plastic shopping bags back and forth from one section of the overhead bins to another.  A live animal could have gotten lost in the shuffle.  This plus other delays turned a supposedly 8-hour journey into an almost 12-hour one.

At the behest of the young woman who spoke English, I took a taxi to the hotel.  The driver was a sad-looking old man, but he seemed to understand my Spanish.  We spent a while looking for an ATM, before circling back around to the hotel--but within feet of the door, his car stopped dead in the middle of the street--and I realized he'd brought me to the wrong hotel.  I started to grab my bags and walk to the right hotel, which was only a couple blocks away, but finally took pity on him as he feebly tried to push the car up into the gas station, and helped.  Here I was, newly arrived in a strange city, shuffling my backpack back on so I could help an old mulatto man and a black boy he'd somehow co-opted push a broken-down old Toyota into a gas station, the only thing lit in the tropical night.  When was the last time any white man had been seen in such a scene?  Why wasn't somebody photographing this for me?  Was I glad there was nothing wrong with his car more than an empty tank or mad that he'd let it run dry?  I was slaphappy with fatigue, and beyond caring.  It was a one-way street the wrong way, as were the nearest few cross-streets, so we made another big circle before finally coming upon the right hotel, during the course of which it became clear that the driver had never been there before, even though he'd insisted initially that he knew right where it was.

The night watchman would only say "Full," and might not have let me in had I not produced an email printout of my reservation, at which point he scurried off to summon the manager.  I gave the taxi driver $3, which seemed generous given his level of service, but he moaned and groaned that I owed him $10, so I settled on $5, upbraiding him for making such a mess of a quick and easy ride.  If I hadn't been so tired I might have laughed about it, and maybe even paid him what he asked, but after two days in a row of over-extended journeys, I was worn thin.

I dumped my stuff in my room and headed out to the nearest place that served beer and anything approximating food.  And as I sat there munching on pretty good pizza and excellent Brazilian-style dark beer, most of the troubles faded, and I was left with amazement that, in the long view, everything had worked out.  Travel is supposed to be about the journey, after all; sometimes it's a little too long, or complicated, but we forget the old adages at our peril.  Ticking off destinations on a personal hit list is a terrible way to go; it's hackneyed but true--you've got to enjoy the ride.

A hard-won meal

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Biltong man

Maurice shouldering a lamb
Long-time readers will know that this is not my first post on biltong--for about five years it's been a major form of sustenance on my annual two-and-a-half-week camping trip in the Smokies, and thus something of an obsession.  But new readers may not even know what it is: in brief, it's gourmet beef jerky.  How is it different?  Jerky is cut in small pieces across the grain and dried at relatively high heat.  Biltong (Afrikans for "rump") is cut in large pieces with the grain and dried with little or no heat.  These may sound like trivial differences, but once you've tried real biltong, there's no going back to jerky.  To borrow a phrase from the old Diet Coke ads, people eat biltong just for the taste of it, whereas only a hardened hayseed would nosh on jerky outside of a camping trip.  At its finest, biltong is to beef what prosciutto is to pork.

My most recent biltong adventure began when I found a "Biltong King" minivan near the beach and got to chatting with the proprietor, a sinewy fellow whose Afrikans accent was so thick I had some trouble understanding him.  He encouraged me to take pictures, but apologized for having low inventory and urged me to visit the factory for more information.

"They don't have biltong where you stay?" he asked incredulously.  "You gotta visit our factory I'm telling you, Maurice and Sandor will help you out."

"When can I come?"

"Any time, man.  Any time."

Kudu on the rack
Sandor cutting kudu

I was pretty dubious about his directions--he'd uttered that fateful phrase, "you can't miss it"--but with the help of my tour guide, I found my way to the "factory," which turned out to be a kind of glorified garage at the back of a modest house.  (It was Paul, my guide, who started referring to this excursion as "biltong man," which I'm sticking with, because it's comically suggestive of "Piltdown Man" or the like.)

Maurice greets me with a blood-soaked bullet he's extracted from a kudu carcass, and I realize I'm in over my head.  Nearly every flat surface is covered in slabs of meat, and the floor is slippery with blood.  My home sausage-making with friends looks almost vegetarian next to this.
Salting and spicing
"I can't teach you to make biltong," Maurice says.  "It's a process, and it depends on the weather, and all sorts of other things."  His inner generosity almost gets the better of his outer brusqueness.  After giving me a brief tour and encouraging me to take photos, he settles back into work and gets distracted from me.  Fortunately, Sandor gets interested, asking me what I'm doing here, what I do at home, and so on.  He's far from loquacious either, but the more I talk to him, the more information he lets slip.  I tell him I make sausage at home, which impresses him, and he almost embarrasses my memory with detailed questions.  "Maybe you can teach us a few things," he says.

Sausage and kudu drrying
Jerky is awful, Sandor says predictably.  I tell Maurice that heat is used to cure it, and he's disgusted: "You can't cook it."  I agree, but their operation seems to have no concern at all for hygiene.  Nobody can shake my hand because theirs are all bloody, and they go from cutting raw kudu to grabbing raw lamb to breaking off pieces of curing sausage for me to taste to smoking to working scales and opening doors without any thought of washing.  Blood is smeared all over the floor.  When I return the second day, though, they've finished butchering and the women are scrupulously cleaning everything. 

"It's a shit job," Sandor says, and I can see what he means.  Several dressed-out kudus came in yesterday or today whole or in quarters, and it will take more than a day to cut them all up; only then can the seasoning and drying begin.  Each step of the process must be done on a huge scale--and carefully coordinated.  No more meat could be hung until what was currently drying came out, yet several hundred pounds were in process in the cutting room, and several hundred more--maybe into tons--at various stages in a walk-in and several chest freezers.

Sawing a kudu
While I was there--an hour or so--half a dozen people (mostly men) came in separately to buy all sorts of different parts and pieces of meat.  Maurice, and occasionally Sandor, as well as their black assistant, had to keep interrupting their butchering to give these guys what they wanted--most of it involved Maurice making whole lamb and other carcasses into chops and the like with a standing band-saw, working fast enough and with his hands close enough to the blade to make me nervous, smoking all the while.

Maurice is 5'9" at best and wiry, with silver hair and long-handled mustache; he almost disappears under his railroad-like black cap and denim apron.  Sandor is a big burly guy with a lot of tattoos, a bald head, and a dark goatee, flesh overflowing his neon yellow t-shirt, shorts, and white apron.  They couldn't look more different, so I was taken aback when Sandor referred to Maurice as "my father."  Two cute towheaded boys of less than 10 let me in initially when I asked for Maurice and another blonde girl of maybe 8 in pink track suit, who calls Sandor "Dad" and holds her ears when inside the factory, could be Dutch or Swedish.

All hands on deck
"Why don't you come back tomorrow?" Sandor says.  "We'll give you a knife, and you can see how it really works."

"You're late," he says when I return the next day at the same time.  "We're all finished."  I must look crushed, because he continues in a much softer tone, "Come on in anyway.  I've got a special tray you can watch me season."

Almost done
By the time I leave the second time, I'm not sure how much I've learned, but it's been thrilling to see the real deal of biltong-making--especially on this almost industrial scale.  I showed Sandor a picture of my own attempts at biltong and he approved: "That looks great."  But almost every question I put to him was answered either "it doesn't matter" or "you've just got to experiment."  Nonetheless, I'm amazed at his generosity in letting me stick my camera in all corners of his operation.  I remember the time I asked the sword-seller in Toledo, Spain if I could visit his factory and he got irate: "You think I want to give away all my secrets?" as if a common tourist is likely to pirate a sword factory.  Or the time I recognized Otavalo weavings at a booth in the Pike Place Market in Seattle and asked the proprietor how hard it was to import them; he suggested I pay him for any further information.  Biltong is so ordinary to South Africans that it would never occur to them to get protective. 
The finished product