Friday, March 15, 2013

Some time on the road...

Adventure is an addiction like any other. Untreated, it can quickly leave you feeling trapped and out of place in the real world of coffee stains and water-cooler gossip.

The adrenaline that flooded through me when I first landed in Maputo quickly faded once I settled in and made new friends. I soon wanted more. My minor brushes with death not withstanding, I’ve left every trip this year hungry for something bigger, faster and more exciting.

Our destination was always Tete, Mozambique’s most remote province by the Zimbabwean border, where international mining companies have struck massive amounts of coal. We were planning to quickly fly in and out, a surgical procedure leaving no room for distractions.  But when funding became an issue, my colleague proposed a cross-country road trip and I just had to say yes.

We set off early on a hot Thursday morning, fully equipped for disaster. Extra fuel, malaria pills, first aid kits, apples, cereal bars and an extensive CD collection carried us through the 5,000 km trip. We stopped along the way, collecting notes and stories from roadside villages as we went. Potholes, mudslides and storms out at sea, wouldn’t stop us. 

 When we weren’t driving, we were interviewing. When we weren’t interviewing, we were writing. It was one of the most intense weeks of my life. Everyone from the head of a major port, to sex workers, to resettlement camp dwellers, had something to say about how quickly this country is changing.

In many ways, I feel like I’m getting one of the last glimpses of a virgin Mozambique. The mud-hut villages sprinkled across the mountains in the north go on for hours. Frozen in time, the residents live like they have for hundreds of years, not a cell phone, television or internet connection for miles.
Barring a few hubs of South African tourists, no hotels, resorts or restaurants interrupt Mozambique’s beaches, which stretch on unabated for thousands of miles. 

Of course, things are not ideal.  Remoteness also brings a lack of schools, hospitals and doctors. A week after driving through the deserted north, we finally reached Beira, Mozambique's second largest city. I gawked at the two story buildings around the city, looming over the merchants on the street, and marveled at the street lights and round-a-bouts, governing our towns with meticulous order. 

But I can’t help and worry that with the luxury resorts and pizza joints that will inevitably spring up with development, Mozambique’s unique culture, which has been so impeccably preserved, will be washed away. 

I once said to a Mozambican friend while walking along a deserted beach on the southern coast, “ We are one of the last people who will get to see Mozambique.” He turned to me and said, “Or maybe, we’re one of the first.”

To be sure, the country’s future looks extremely bright. Yesterday, at one of the many energy conferences now common in Maputo’s grand hotels, some 300 businessmen drooled at the prospects of drilling into Mozambican waters for a share of the unparalleled amounts of natural gas they’ve discovered in its Indian Ocean basin. If managed correctly, this money has the potential to go a long way for Mozambicans, particularly if the government invests its new wealth in health and education.

Halfway through the conference, one businessman showed an image of a wild Mozambican coastal village today and a mock up of what it could look like in 30 years: Skyscrapers towering over a developed beach resort.

A Dubai in southern Africa! “Modernity” and “development” at long last! 

Thursday, January 31, 2013

La Dolce Vita

There’s nothing quite like these torrid, lonely summer nights in Maputo. Every day ends the same way. Determined parties, thinly veiled behind whatever cause, spring up around the city. Hips throb into the sticky night air, searching, until nausea or sweat or daybreak persuade them to stop. The language is intoxicating. Backs spin and legs thread into each other as the noise builds to a sensational high, the spangled sky above the only thing separating us from heaven. And that reggae music! Lazy beats that contract and release the drowsy blood through our veins. The delayed snap of drum and bass usher us through a flat-voweled chorus. “ Leh gah laize it. Legalaiiiize it."

Just as there are two Sao Paulos, Miamis and multiple New Yorks, the flow of money pouring into Maputo is building two distinct cities. These opposite worlds converge at the end of each night, when the streets are deserted, when club bouncers, bureaucrats and well-pressed servants can no longer keep them apart. Pregnant with disposable income, the upper class rolls onto the naked misery of the street.

At first, it all looks empty. But sure enough, a swarm of young boys come running towards me, their hands cupped into shells, each one claiming to have guarded my car while I twisted and turned inside. I hand one of them 30 cents and am free to go.

Driving along Maputo’s wide avenues all is still. But there is a tremor in the mountain of trash that regularly accumulates on the city’s streets. A piece of cardboard dances. Slowly, I make out a man rising and falling beneath it, searching for his dinner. And then another. And a third. A pack masked in the garbage. And I know that if I look, I will see it all: Creased, sick legs prodding out of marble entryways, teenage boys cackling around a dimly-lit fire, wide-eyed drug addicts crisscrossing the military district.

Come morning they'll split again. Both groups hunting, craving, desperate. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Slow News Day in Moz

RTP Africa:  26 minutes have passed since the clock struck 12 in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique! We are live with Joaquim. Joaquim, you are in Maputo. What do you see??

Joaquim: Well, right now, Manuel, in this moment, here in Maputo, I see a some light drizzle.

In fact, the day started out cloudy and, I don't think I misspeak when I say that it has gotten progressively worse since this morning! I believe I express myself correctly when I say that it is going to get worse, and could turn into some full force rain. 

RTP Africa: Well listeners, you heard correctly! Straight from Maputo: A little drizzle that could turn into some rain! 

Gotta love RTP Africa.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Fear Factor

Sometime last week, the sun decided to reclaim its identity as a blazing ball of fire. Mozambicans everywhere took cover. Market vendors became mobile, carrying their stands and products as they trailed the ambulant shade. Many cut their work days short, took extra showers, opened their windows,  but it was no use.  Asphalt melted.  A fresh bottle of water turned tepid in the time it took to unscrew the cap and place it on my lips. Five minutes later it was undrinkable. The hot wind blew into the city like a hair dryer you couldn’t escape from.

And so it was that I found myself dehydrated and strapped to an IV at a Maputo hospital, staring up at the florescent light bulbs as a patient next to me roared in pain, wondering, for the millionth time, what in the world I am doing here.

Living in Mozambique is like a constant game of fear factor. Every week, I have to face up to some longstanding fear. Shootings, riots, mudbaths full of lizards, flying cockroaches nesting on my pillow, power outages, tiny planes in violent thunder storms. Sometimes they all combine into one super episode. Last week in Durban, I walked into my deserted lakeside cabin to find thousands of flying ants, insects the size of butterflies. This time of year, they gather around any light source, mate and die right away. There they were, mating and dying all over my bed. There were so many I couldn’t see to the other side of the room. My only option was to wait outside where hundreds of frogs were croaking in anticipation of their dinner, head up a pitch-black hill, my flashlight hidden as to not attract the flying aunts, to the public bathroom, where I took a shower in standing water.

This week it was my fear of needles. I’m so terrified of needles that I’ve never given blood. Until this year, doctors would still take samples from my finger. I’ve befriended countless nurses through the air-tight hugs I give them while their colleagues take my blood.

But suddenly, here I was, all alone, in a hospital with a nurse, Preciosa, who had no time to hug me, let alone put my IV in properly. She tried for 10 minutes to dig and twist the needle into my arm with no success. When she pulled it out blood spewed all over the sheets.  She absentmindedly reached for a few paper towels and dapped them on my arm.

When she asked to try my other arm, I refused. “No no, I’m fine. I’m just going to go home now and just drink some of my hot bottled water, its fine.” But Preciosa wouldn't have it. She did let me cry for about 20 minutes before coming back in and saying, “Ok, enough is enough. You are going to have to be brave.” And she dug the needle in once again.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Night in Maputo

Living in Southern Africa, I often feel like I have a front row seat to the theatre of global politics. 

Brazilians dominate Mozambique's booming coal industry and the Chinese have a monopoly on infrastructure development around the city. But the battle for cultural influence is where the real fight is found. 

The handful of cultural centers in Maputo, sponsored by various embassies, hold events throughout the year attempting to sell their culture onto unsuspecting (or, at times, actively participating) Mozambicans. It is soft power at its loudest. 

Last month, when I watched a Mozambican children's choir singing the Chinese National Anthem in fluent Mandarin, I thought I had seen it all.

Not so. Tonight, the US Embassy in Maputo hosted an American Electoral Night. Don't let the fancy name fool you, the event was a full out party. Three-hundred people packed under a parachute tent in Maputo's fanciest park to taste a little slice of classic american electoral insanity. 

They were not disappointed. Mozambicans wearing patriotic American hats ate cheeseburgers smeared in Ketchup and slurped their Coca-Colas (official sponsor) while CNN election coverage and live a Twitter feed broadcast from four Plasma TVs.  

But the highlight of the night was a mock debate, in which Mozambican students channeled their inner Obama, Biden and Romney and Ryan, and bickered over gay marriage, abortion, unemployment and the Syrian conflict. 

The Mozambican candidates were judged on their knowledge of the American political system, adherence to the Republican/Democratic platforms and, of course, rhetorical style. 

They all did fairly well, save a nervous "Joey Beeden," who claimed Obama was pro-choice because there were too many poor street children roaming US cities. 

Throughout the room there were pamphlets explaining "How Democracies Transfer Power", "Decrees of Democracy" and " The Basics of American Politics". 

At the end of the night, all Mozambicans cast their fake ballots and, unsurprisingly, elected Obama, who gained 228 votes compared to Romney's 24.

A Mozambican friend who accompanied me to the party said it best, "The Chinese could never pull off a party with this many hats." 

At the end of the day, by allowing Mozambicans to vote, debate and learn about the US election, the State department was doing what it does best, projecting the idea that anyone can be an American. This direct cultural identification goes a long way, not only in clearing the path for US-Mozambican relations, but also in dissolving accusations of cultural imperialism. 

Events like these give people who are extremely impacted by, but have very little control over the US elections, the illusion that they too have a say. 

And that skill will take the Chinese, Indians and Brazilians a very long time to master.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Alone-ly lonely lone

"All Alone!
Whether you like it or not,
Alone will be something
you'll be quite a lot"- Dr. Seuss

Sometimes living so far away gets lonely.

Mozambicans are self-proclaimed "acolhedores." Gatherers. Family, a term not confined to superficial blood bonds, is everything here. So when people see that I am alone, they constantly take me in. Every week, friends invite me to baby showers, sunday brunches and birthdays.

But because my Mozambican friends have been so welcoming, the loneliness mostly hits me when I am surrounded by people, after the third glass of champagne and small talk with someone’s cousin.  I can always feel it coming on, these contractions in my stomach pulling me down, each stronger than the last. I'm trying to keep all these strange names straight. Who broke whose heart, the war, who left, who stayed. Why?

Suddenly I’m paralyzed in my loneliness, desperate for familiar eyes, a shared history. Its like I've been plunged into someone else's story.

I’m out of context in Maputo.  How can someone possibly understand me, unless they understand orange-brick Brazilian buildings, Boston winters, that time on the couch at your aunt’s house?
Where’s New York? Its swirling chaos of cabs, tears, and ambition. "Art."

I miss meat. Salty steaks, French fries so greasy they leave your fingers wet.
Being able to read body language, sarcasm; the grammatical nuances of culture.

It’s time to go. “I have things to do in the States,” I’ll tell myself. “I’ve left conversations unfinished, friendships unexplored. I’ve never been to Cony Island!”

But being plucked out of my context, my family, my history, has made me a little bit fearless.  I have more room to explore who I am.

I can be the kind of girl that takes a surfing trip to Durban. I can cut off all my hair, dance passada until 4 a.m and learn to speak Shangaan. I can cover stories about rap. Because, why not? Ultimately, being alone gives me the freedom to make more mistakes.

Then I hear Fatima sing her sad morning song and the loneliness dissipates.  I feel ready for fresh memories, different people, and new contexts. Cony Island can wait.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have someone else’s family reunion to attend.