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.

Piña 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.  

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