If we were a little relieved to be leaving South Africa, we weren’t quite ready for Mozambique…
After a quick interlude of two days to cross Swaziland (a country which merits a much longer visit than that), the border gave us a taste of what was to come. Just across the frontier, the road goes from crisp black asphalt to a pot-holed and rutted track that probably was paved at some point… though there isn’t much sign of it now.
After three hours in immigration waiting for our visas, we roll into Mozambique at 11.00, and into a heat so brutal it feels like our eyes might melt. In the shade of a tree we decide to rest until late afternoon – though the rumble of gathering storm clouds rouses us ahead of schedule and instead we spend the afternoon trying to outrun a set of thunderstorms moving across the area and trying to decipher Mozambican road signs – “Wait, wasn’t there a different sign saying 42km to Maputo 20km ago?”
And so goes biking in Mozambique. For the heat, we take to getting on the road by 5.30 am and cycling until 11.00, then taking a four or five hour lunch break to avoid the worst before getting back on the road for a last hour or so at the end of the day. We come to crave the rainy days (it is the rainy season here) because at least the clouds and the downpours keep away the sun.
We do our best to avoid the atrociously overpriced hotels and take to sleeping in villages or outside schools and churches. There is a poverty here that is truly shocking and which we haven’t seen in any of the other countries we have cycled through so far. The roads are lined by women and children in tattered clothes, something we almost never saw in East Africa, all selling the same things: mangoes (3 cents each), or pineapples (33 cents each). A bag of charcoal representing several days worth of work on the part of the salesman sells for less than 3$. And yet a hotel room costs 50$, a bus ticket 15$. Even on our meager budget, our lifestyle is beyond the reach of most ordinary Mozambicans.
In Northern Mozambique things are only harder. We are reminded of Uganda: people stare at us from just a meter away without talking to us; the national language is often useless for communication; children run screaming and crying at the sight of us… The only difference is that northern Mozambique is so isolated that people don’t even know to ask white travelers for money – a sort of national pastime in Uganda.
For the first time in our trip, we find people completely at a loss when we tell them what we are doing. After a year on the road, we have a sort of routine for these moments, a set piece we can run through with our eyes closed.
Where are you going?
Where are you coming from?
Then will come a standard string of questions: Do you not get tired? You must be fit? What about wild animals? Do you get punctures? Where do you sleep?
From wealthy South African sophisticates to poor children in the slums of Dar es Salaam, everyone asks the same questions, they are the sort of universal human response to our trip… except in northern Mozambique. Here, even after we take out the map, there are never any follow-up questions, never any sign that what we are doing is anything less bizarre than a sort of alien coming to visit them might be.
The gulf that separates our lives is just too great to be bridged. We have been to over thirty countries in our lives, we can hop on a plane home at any moment and land a minimum wage job that earns more in a month than they do in a year… We really are aliens, we decide, at least compared to the lives of these people, living on and cultivating the same land their parents lived on and cultivated.
Remembering how fortunate we are helps us to deal with the staring, perhaps the most trying part of the days aside from the sun. It can be hard to describe how unnerving constant staring is if you haven’t been through it. Leaving your tent at 4.45am to find a crowd of people standing a meter away from you and not talking… just staring…
You say ‘Bom dia,’ and maybe one responds, but mostly they just stare…
And so you pack your bags, and they stare… Eventually you get on the road, where you’re followed by young men on bikes riding behind you or pedaling hard to pass you. You say ‘Bom dia,’ and maybe one responds, but mostly they just stare…
For a water break we can usually get three or four people staring at us – average, of course, if we’re near a school we can do way better. If we stop to cook lunch, or (wonder of wonders!) filter some water, we have been known to attract up to 40 people standing a meter or two away and staring at us. We say ‘Bom dia,’ and maybe one responds, but mostly they just stare…
We are eager for a break when we roll into Nampula at last.
We just weren’t ready for this. If anything, Mozambique is a country with an excellent reputation in Africa, one of the nations that gets mentioned as a bright star, a country with a great future, with a government that cares for its people… Personally, I wonder if anyone who says that has ever actually been to Mozambique.
Though I’m sure things are improving. At the end of the civil war (a standard two decade long Cold War affair that touched all kinds of lows with regards to brutality and ruthlessness), Mozambique was the poorest country in the world, with 90% of its people living below the UN poverty level. Today, in much of the country things are improving, everyone we talk to who has been in the country since the end of the war agrees on that. There is new construction in Maputo, tourism is booming, more and more Mozambicans are climbing out of poverty, little by little things are getting better.
But political opposition has begun to take root as well, much to the annoyance of FRELIMO, the party in power. Children in school without a FRELIMO card don’t pass, provinces who vote for the opposition have all federal funding cut off, food aid after floods and storms is directed away from towns that voted for the opposition in favor of FRELIMO towns. There is a national drive on now to require all cell phones to be registered with the government – in Mozambique as in Egypt, cell phones are the key to political organization.
If anything, it all sounds like Zimbabwe, and the idea that the country enjoys such a rosy reputation (one writer even recommending that Mozambique receive unlimited foreign aid with no strings attached), when no one we have met here seems to have a good thing to say about the ruling party suggests already what the US and European newspapers will say in another few years when election results are withheld and Gebueza refuses to transfer power – “No one saw it coming,” “Another bright star in Africa going bad,” and so on – but will this really be surprising to anyone here?
Even as a traveler you can feel it. We are stopped by police in most of the major cities (and even in some very small towns) to have our passports checked. One cop lays out a line about needing money to pay for the gas he needs to come check our passports, but we ignore it and make it through without paying any bribes.
And so like I said, it was a bit rough, cycling through northern Mozambique. We were relieved to make it to Nampula. Though that relief quickly evaporated when we realized that my rear wheel is broken, and that even the tools needed to find the problem are about a thousand miles and a thousand dollars away. We debated for a long time ordering the parts, and the wonderful folks at La Maison du Velo in Brussels once again came to our aid with their time and advice.
But in the end we have no choice but to pack it up. Our cycling in Africa ends here. I imagined it otherwise – you inevitably do as you bike along, across the Kalahari or the Namib or through the endless hills of Bwindi – you imagine the moment you arrive and how good it will feel then because damn it doesn’t feel good now… I didn’t imagine it as a stupid wheel problem that we can’t even diagnose, as bad news read in an e-mail in a cheap internet cafe.
But voila, so it is. We are a bit sad about it, but at the same time we know that we have so much to be grateful for, that we are so much more fortunate than so many of our fellow human-beings. The plans going forward now are to bus and train it to Lilongwe for our flights home in early March, hopefully stopping at some very cool permaculture projects there. And then for the rest, we have a lot of ideas for what the rest of our trip will look like, though all too vague to share just yet. For the time being, we are visiting the beaches and islands of northern Mozambique and well, not feeling too too sorry for ourselves.
As always thanks so much for all the e-mails and comments, we really appreciate them all. We’ll have our last update from Africa next month!