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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Flying Solo in Mozambique

Dear Mom,

I've had some real adventures far from home, but I think traveling alone for a week in Mozambique may go down as my boldest trip ever!

Those who are just now joining us on this ride can check out this post to understand my rationale for wanting to go to Mozambique. (Postscript to that post from the spring...I ended up cutting out the European part of my planned summer sabbatical in order to accept a promotion at work.)

It's funny, on my flight to Africa, I saw a quote in a magazine that summed up perfectly the mix of fear and fascination that I was feeling about the solo portion of my journey. I can't find it now, but these are along the same lines.

It's funny, though, I tell people all the time about you and Miss Frances going to Valencia in the 60s, and that seems so much more daring to me, in this day of wifi and Facebook. We had wifi issues at the places where I stayed with the group, but I had pretty good access the whole week I was alone, so I never felt completely adrift.

Anyway, on Friday morning, we wrapped up the group tour in Maputo, and I said farewell to my fellow travelers. Many of them were heading to Cape Town or doing extra days on safari in Kruger, but I was the only one who'd chosen to explore more of Mozambique. (And obviously it's not something I would have done alone if I didn't speak Portuguese. that I've been...I'm already plotting my return!)

Funny I left the group tour at the craft market, one of the guides told me something in Portuguese that I loved so much, I wrote it down in my trusty notebook:
Se Deus quisse que nos ficassemos no mesmo sitio ele davanos raizes en vez de pernas.

If God wanted us to stay in the same place, he would have given us roots instead of legs.

I googled it, but somehow no one has made one of those clever images of that one yet! Maybe I'll figure out how to put it on top of one of my feet pics.

Since our quick trip ("Ferrari safari" was a new term we learned in the bush) through the Natural History Museum was so truncated, I decided to return, as it was located directly across the street from our hotel. In the gift shop, I found  a few additions to Mr. Mark's Coca-Cola collection (to go with the tuck tuck LAS got him in Thailand), but I decided these would have to be virtual...

 I was fascinated by the turtle exhibit and snapped a photo for our favorite turtle feeder...
They have a huge display of mounted and stuffed animals from the African bush, and it was quite interesting to see an exhibit representing what we'd seen in person on safari, with three lions and one buffalo.

The "Fight for Survival" plaque was good reading practice for me, as it talked about the conditions under which the usually peaceful buffalo can become a fierce combatant. (Without getting off on too much of a philosophical tangent, it made me think about the way we are often irreparably wounded, even when we "win" a fight.)

They asked if I wanted a guide, and I said I'd just explore on my own, but I had to ask for help when I saw this and wanted to make sure I was understanding the text...

Excuse me? Sir? Am I reading this correctly? These are actual elephant fetuses? 
Indeed, ma'am! In fact, it's the world's only collection! 

I then got a lengthy explanation, which, if I understood it correctly, was that there was a massive elephant slaughter (in the 30s, I think) to clear an area for agricultural development. Noticing that some of the elephants were pregnant, one of the coordinators of the project suggested they save the fetuses for scientific research. I was taken back to the days of dissecting frogs in Mrs. Van's lab, as you can even smell the formaldehyde! It's only the first four or five that are real; the others are models. And, this should remain the world's only collection of elephant fetuses, as hopefully there will never be such a massive slaughter again.

The things you learn when you travel!

I was also excited to see a stuffed wild dog, as Jonathan the safari guide had said these are his very favorite animals.
My guide then explained to me more about some of the other exhibits, including these busts, which he said represent the three tribes/regions of the country -- north, south and central -- and their distinctive facial features.
 The museum was empty at that point, so he let me check out some of the native instruments.
 I told Miss Crystle this one reminded me of her Orff lessons in middle school.

You're not supposed to touch the exhibits, but when no one else is around, the guides are more indulgent...
I learned the dugong is a native of the Bazaruto Archipelago, where I'd be going. It's related to the manatee, which made me think there is still much of Florida I need to see and experience! was a bit primitive...but I enjoyed these pyramid and circle of life demonstrations. I wish I could have listened in as the guides explained this stuff to a school group.

From the museum, I walked a few blocks over to the Nucleo de Arte, an artists' cooperative, which looked cool when I saw it on a Lonely Planet episode, as it's a combination studio and social/creative space. There were a few artists working on paintings, and there was some cool sculpture, but I wasn't sure what the photo rules were, the art was fairly expensive, and it was overall a bit of a bust.

Here are some photos I found online. They apparently had an "arms to art" program to turn weapons into sculpture and other works, and I imagine it would be really cool if you were there for one of their opening nights or an actual event.

(I did see for myself an old, fat man smoking and painting, but thankfully he was not shirtless.)

Then I walked back to the hotel, after a thwarted attempt to stand in line at an ATM. (I walked up as a gal was walking out, and a guy said to me -- in English -- "Um, actually, there's a line here." I stood for about five minutes but then thought surely I could find another option, as I had some cash I could exchange at the hotel.) I think this area used to be one of the nicest parts of the city, and it wasn't too bad, but I was ready for my next stop, the Polana Hotel.
So, I collected my bag at the Cardoso Hotel and enjoyed an absolutely delightful ride with a cheerful and chatty cabbie, who informed me his motorcycle taxi contraption is made in Cuba! These are great, and I don't know why we don't have them in New York. (Given the Uber outcry, I'd guess the taxi lobby has something to do with it.)
Built in 1922, the Polana is the nicest hotel in Maputo, one of the loveliest colonial hotels in Africa. I was impressed! I'm sure it went through some rough days, but it's been beautifully renovated. As I checked in, I was greeted with a champagne glass of fresh watermelon juice and a damp towel to freshen up. Here's a view from the street, courtesy of the Mozambique Tourist Bureau:

 Here are a few photos from the hotel website.
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And, a few from my camera, of my view of the bay and the spa:

I was extremely annoyed with myself when I realized the spa seemed quite fabulous, but I'd neglected to build in time to enjoy! Little Miss Planner was not on her A game at all. Big fail! My pedicure was looking extremely gnarly, and a massage to wrap up the week would have been pure bliss. (I immediately began plotting my return to Maputo...) main plan was simply to enjoy some quiet time and catch up on my electronic correspondence, as I was feeling a bit detached from friends and family and events at home, which I'll go into later, as it merits its own entry.

After a week of cohabitation, I enjoyed a quiet "lupper" by myself, a swim in the tub, a chilled glass of sparkling wine, and a delicious night of rest in my own big and charming bed! (The bathroom at this joint was definitely worthy of five stars itself.)

I'd also like to take a moment to point out for the "everything is better in America" naysayers that there is definitely one thing that's better outside the U.S.: hotel breakfasts! I had a fantastic, complementary breakfast included at every single spot on my trip. And while the Polana's may have been the best of them all, every single hotel where I spent the night offered a gouge-worthy spread.

Rested and refreshed, I headed to the Maputo airport to fly to my next stop. I was bound for the beach town of Tofo in the province of Inhambane, known as the "terra da boa gente" ("land of good people"). Our Maputo guide told us the residents of Inhambane are so honest, they'll go to great lengths to track you down and return anything you lose. Not a bad place to begin my solo journey, I thought... 

That is, until I was a little too friendly and honest with the cabbie as he drove me to my hotel. Am I single? Yes! Traveling solo? Yes! I should have cooked up some tale about a boyfriend who worked for an NGO and would be meeting me as soon as he wrapped up the land mine conference in Maputo (all good lies should have just enough truth to be believable, and there was indeed such a conference taking place). Alas, Chatty Sue instead gave up just enough info for the cabbie to suggest we spend some time together getting to know each other during my visit. I'm not really sure if his refusal of my attempts to change the subject away from dating and back to the landscape qualified as creepy or just annoying, but I exited the cab at my hotel without giving him my phone number...or a tip, for that matter! 

I later learned quite a number of white women come to Tofo seeking a "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" sort of vacation, enjoying ALL the, er, "natural wonders" of the African continent, so Lord knows what sort of tourism that cabbie thought I planned on engaging in!

But back to the story. The journey from Maputo to Tofo was otherwise uneventful, if a bit entertaining when I arrived at the not-recently-renovated Inhambane airport, which would give a TSA officer a panic attack.

(Two different airport security guards in Mozambique suggested I hide my water in my backpack but let me through with it anyway...snaps to the third world for not sweating the small stuff.)

My favorite part of the Inhambane airport was collecting my luggage from "baggage claim."
Note that if one were backpacking and on a thrifty budget, one would take a chapa (van) from Maputo to a town called Maxixe, then take a boat across the bay to Inhambane, then get a ride to Tofo. (It wouldn't be quite like this, but it would be close!)
I considered flying to be a perk of (a) galloping toward middle age (b) having a good job (c) having limited time and enjoyed the aerial view.
The Hotel Tofo Mar was recently renovated and just delightful.

I got a room with an ocean view and loved the open shower, where I could enjoy the beach vista as I lathered up my hair with their absolutely scrumptious shampoo.
I spent three nights there and just loved relaxing, eating seafood on the terrace, and walking on the beach.

 The waiters were all delightful and got a kick out of my Brazilian accent.

The first night I was there, a guy from Georgia who's volunteering with the Methodist church came to meet me for dinner. We had a great chat, as it made me reflect on my volunteer experience in Brazil. I wanted to visit the rural hospital where he's working, but the logistics were challenging, and I'd decided this trip was about relaxation more than education. He was a fantastic resource as I booked my trip, so I was glad to treat him to a good meal to say thanks. (Still such a funny thing that our paths crossed because I happened to be in Quincy for service at Centenary the weekend that the lady from UMVIM was there to speak!)

Tofo reminded me quite a bit of Buzios, the beach town where we'd go to relax after our volunteer trips in Rio. Brigitte Bardot put Buzios on the map when it was just a fishing village, and as I watched the fishermen head out to sea in the early morning, I wondered if the same thing might eventually happen for Tofo...

However, Tofo has actually been on the tourist map for quite some time, as the hotel was built in 1969, and the hotel was the site of the approval of the text of Mozambique's constitution! It's well known as a destination for surfers and divers, and even South African families, but tourism was definitely down, despite the fact South African schools were on holiday. Some of that is apparently due to recent fighting much farther north, but the gal I spoke with felt like tourism has sort of stalled in recent years, in part because infrastructure hasn't really improved or kept up. (Case in point: the airport. Vilanculos, my next stop, has a brand-new, first-class airport.) 

There's also the headache of constant solicitation to buy things, which is one thing when you venture into the market... 
Or when it's a cute kid selling bracelets on the beach... 
 ...but quite another when you're just trying to take a walk and someone keeps trying to sell you a sarong or a wood carving.

Anyway, I did get in some nice beach walks and jogs (which the hotel staff assured me was fine to do on my long as I went north, not south to Tofinho).

And I got a kick out of watching more tractor boat launches, especially one of a rather massive fishing charter. (I hope Russell Suber sees this, as I couldn't help thinking of my favorite boat salesman!) I got there after "Captain Jackie" had already released the boat from the trailer and was returning the tractor to its beach parking spot, while several strong young men held it stable. Then he returned for the push off...

 Naturally I snuck a photo for my global John Deere collection.
One day I took an ocean safari, and I left my camera on dry land for safekeeping, but we saw a lot of migrating humpback whales, which was pretty cool.

We saw one breach that was pretty close to this (thanks, Wikipedia!):

But it was mostly just watching tales like this one. 
The guys from the boat invited me over for fish curry and suggested I check out "Manta Mondays," an educational talk about manta rays sponsored by the Marine Megafauna Foundation, which is housed at Casa Berry.

It was quite interesting, and I learned a lot! The speaker was a Dutch guy working on his Ph.D., under the tutelage of a marine biologist whose work in Tofo led to the realization there are two species of manta ray (and they think they've found a third one).

I enjoyed the fish curry the guys had prepared, and after several solo meals, it was nice to have some company. There was also a gal from California at dinner; she runs a hotel and had baked some scrumptious cinnamon buns for dessert. I wish I'd gotten a photo of the guys, as they were really sweet and a lot of fun.

On my way back to the airport on Tuesday morning, I got the taxi drivers to give me a little whirl through the town of Inhambane. It was enough to satisfy my curiosity about that spot, though I do think it would have been fun to ride a dhow across the bay to Maxixe.

Realizing I'd not taken many photos of the countryside, I snapped a few along the way.

The church was closed, so I was bummed not to be able to climb up into the tower and check out the views of the bay.

Not sure if the Samora Machel statue is the Mozambique equivalent of the ubiquitous Confederate War memorial statues we see on Southern courthouse lawns? (Or, as Aunt Esta's Yankee husband calls them, "second-place trophies.")

I flew from Inhambane to Vilanculos (or Vilankulo, if you prefer the non-colonial spelling). Big snaps to my new friend Paul at White Pearl Resort, who'd suggested I tweak my original plan to ride from point to point.

As previously noted, the airport in "Vil" was quite fancy. This coastal town is the gateway to the renowned Bazaruto Archipelago, home of some of the world's best diving. Again...I was kicking myself for not getting dive certified. Next trip!

I stayed at a charming B&B called Casa Rex, run by a group of expats from Zimbabwe. My room was just perfect, with a view of the water and the swimming pools in the garden below.

On my first of three nights there, I enjoyed sunset tapas on the terrace, took a stroll on the beach, and got a long night's sleep on their super-soft sheets.

The next morning, after breakfast I made a new friend! I decided to do a boat trip for sand dune climbing and snorkeling on Two Mile Reef, along with another gal who was staying at Casa Rex.
She was great! Her name was Celina, and she's a Canadian working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with Save the Children. She's lived all over the world working as a humanitarian relief worker for various NGOs.

We were on the boat with a family from South Africa. Our first stop was Bazaruto Island, the largest in the archipelago, known for its massive sand dunes.

The pictures don't really capture the stunning scale of the dunes, but you can see one of the kids in a pink shirt climbing up to slide down.

 I was very tickled by our captain Denis, who was wearing a jacket and ski hat for the chilly day (no lie...his knit cap said SKI...SKI...SKI all the way around it). It was overcast, so it was a bit cool, but we're talking lower 70s. I guess winter weather is always relative.
After a stop on Pansy Island (Pansy = Sand Dollar), and snorkeling on Two Mile Reef, which was quite impressive. Again, no underwater camera, so let's turn to the magic of the interwebs, shall we? This shot is a bit short on colorful fish, but it does show you the beautiful coral.

We landed on another small island for more strolling and swimming, and a tasty lunch of grilled fish, fish stew, and chicken.

Back at the hotel that night, Celina and I split a bottle of wine, and I proceeded to order the world's messiest entree, crab curry. She said she had food envy, but after watching me go through two finger bowls trying to get tiny pieces of crab out of their shells, I think her steak was the better call.

 Turns out she is a writer too, so we hope to swap stories and stay in touch.

The next day, I booked another boat trip, this one on a dhow (sailboat) to Magaruque Island. I met Andre and Mike, two honeymooning Americans from NYC, and Jim, an American who's getting a master's in public health in Johannesburg.

Also on the boat with us was a British expat named Jude, whose brother Richie was visiting from the UK with his girlfriend, and Jude's adorable son. We all really enjoyed each other, and the weather was much sunnier and warmer than the prior day. Jude said it was quite a treat from being there in the summer, when the beach is crowded with boats and shade is at a premium. We practically had the island to ourselves; I think there were two other boats.

The crew cooked us a tasty lunch of grilled baracuda, and we just spent the whole day snorkeling, swimming and strolling. Before we set sail, I suggested we stock up on beer, as the Coke I had with my lunch the prior day left something to be desired...

Magaruque Island has luxury villas for can check them out here, but be sure to invite me along! (Side note...on the prior day's boat trip, I did get a glimpse of the source of my original "I must visit Mozambique" itch, Benguerra Lodge, now known as &Beyond Benguerra Island, and I remain determined to make my way there eventually, once I find the right companion...)

And...that was it! I shared dinner with Jim at Casa Rex that evening and walked into town with Andrea the next morning to buy a 2M t-shirt and a sarong. I flew from Vilankulo to Johannesburg, and then to Atlanta and on to New York. I saw this on Facebook as I waited at baggage claim. 

It was a lovely summer day, warm but not too hot, so I strolled over to Bryant Park for a sandwich at 'Wichcraft. Sure sign of slight homesickness that I walked through the mob of tourists in Times Square! 

While my itch for travel never seems to be fully satisfied, I realized I am incredibly fortunate to live in a city that offers an endless array of opportunities to explore new places, hear different ideas, taste exciting things, and meet interesting people. Or, just generally to experience all life has to offer, savoring each experience, and appreciating what makes each day unique.

Isn't that why we travel anyway?