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.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Prayers unspoken

Death is different in Mozambique. It is ever-present.

My housekeeper uses the phrase “a morte o levou"-  death took him. A swift decision.

Last night, some friends and I were returning from Ponta do Ouro, a touristy beach town by the South African border, where we spent the weekend basking in the early summer heat. We chased the sun out of town, but soon night fell and we had to rely on our headlights to guide us through the long, dirt road snaking its way to Maputo.

We were a group of ten, split up into three cars. It was pitch black when we realized the last car was no longer following us. We quickly doubled back to find out what was the delay.

We found the driver parked on the side of the road. There had been an accident. A car behind her ran over a man hidden by the dark. He was dead.

There was nothing any of us could do, my friend Afonso explained. Bringing the body back to Maputo, three hours away, to be documented wouldn't make sense. Plus, stopping on a deserted road is not advisable, especially in Mozambique. It was unfortunate but better to leave him here, close to his home and family, and let the car that hit him deal with the details of his death.

We hopped back on the road and drove home, the music pumping out the windows, drowning out our knowledge that somewhere on the side of the road lay a son, a husband or maybe a father, his body motionless. Road kill.

Before moving, I promised myself that I wouldn’t resist. I would let this year change me, let the chains of events crash onto me and leave their mark.

So far, the same lesson has been beat into me over and over again. I am not in control. None of us are.

My relationship with religion has always been a complicated one, but, as an agnostic, I’ve never missed being able to pray more than I have here. Being able to do something, to send out wishes of love and comfort and believe they’ll be answered. To be able pray that as those last glimpses of life fade out of someone’s body, they’ll be ushered somewhere better. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Feeling so alive

I'm not a big believer in any external locus of control. Fate, destiny and even coincidences were always a bit beyond my grasp.

But lately I haven't been able to ignore the feeling that this is where I'm supposed to be. To be honest, this feeling started long before I could point out Mozambique on a map. Looking back at the spiral of events that led me here, I'm astonished at just how many elements had to position themselves perfectly for this move to work.

I was so content in New York. In love in New York. So ready to carve an X on the ground and claim it as my corner of the world.  I had my perfect life and yet I was restless to move to Africa. This longing inexplicably planted itself in my head and wouldn't leave. Every time I would make a semi-permanant decision, a part of me would squeal, but what about Africa??- At the Ikea checkout line where I bought my first-real-apartment furniture. The day I (very very stupidly) decided to paint our living room wall red. Even as my relationships deepened and developed, I couldn't help but feel that every mark I etched into my life in New York would make it that much harder to leave.

I closed off Saturday at an all-night party in Maputo's crowded train station (where the party never really ends). My head was swimming in the fog of neon lights that would randomly catch the faces of the new friends surrounding me: people who've graciously opened up their lives and their city to me. From these friendships, I have, in just two short months, had crazy, intense conversations. I've learned so much about Mozambican society by watching the enviably close bond that they've all maintained over the past 30 years, in the midst of war, death and suffering.

I can't help but smile at the thought of that crazy intuition telling me to leave my New York world behind. I'm so so glad I did.

This is where I'm meant to be right now.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Small small worlds

We sometimes travel on the assumption that life is the Small World ride at Disney World. Wherever we go, we expect colorful people to smile from ear to ear at our unexpected presence, waving mechanically as we cruise in and out of their scenery.

(p.c. Kristen Howerton)
                                                                                                                                          ( Kristen Howerton) 
But these days, we want more out of our trips than a pleasant smile from the locals. We want to interact, to learn and to live, temporarily, like a native (whatever our idea of that may be).

In New York, I want to eat a messy New York hotdog, from a yellow New York stand, on the corner of a dirty street, served by a Yankee-cap-wearing immigrant with a Brooklyn accent and a bad mood.

Whole economies spring around this search for authentic travel. In the blink of an eye, crappy hot dog stands, poverty-themed restaurants and out of tune musicians await us at ever corner, ready to cater to our demands of “authenticity”. A lion park in South Africa, elephant ride in India and gondola cruise in Venice are a concierge’s desk away.

Never has this been clearer to me than one night in Swaziland, when, after dinner, we were summoned to watch a “traditional” ceremony at our hotel. The guests sat in plastic chairs around an opening in the sand.  One by one the hotel workers came out, wearing skimpy scraps of fur, shuddering in freezing winter air. They clapped and stomped and shouted in unison but the most memorable part of the dance was their matching looks of misery.

It is in moments like these when our desperate search for authenticity is mirrored back to us, a caricature of our expectations.  Authenticity, when mass-produced, becomes its opposite: a distorted, cheap and often, racist, façade.

So can we dig past all that crap and have meaningful interactions with local people we meet during our travels?

At Ilha de Mocambique, I met an intriguing Spanish photographer who has devoted her life to make that kind of travel possible. Cristina is in the process of opening a mud-house hostel, where guests live exactly like the locals: no running water, electricity or gas.

Guests are required to learn how to cook and shower and clean from their neighbors. Instead of paying for their stay, they help the locals with a neighborhood project, donating whatever skills they have. It is an extreme example, but it’s the most honest attempt I’ve seen at responsible, authentic travel.

Traveling to a developing country inherently involves a lopsided power dynamic because of the simple fact that your presence there is voluntary. I’ve landed into someone’s neighborhood and, whether I’d like to admit it or not, I can leave any time I want.

Choice, especially the choice to travel, is privilege the vast majority of the world will never know and, in Mozambique, it plagues my every interaction.

That unequal power dynamic is accentuated by material inequality. As a journalist and a traveler here, much of what I see are the implications of pure and desperate poverty.  For the first time this year, I’ve interviewed people I know are starving as they talk to me. I’ve had the opportunity to stick around long enough to see the effect that my voluntary presence, western clothes and full stomach, have on them. That type of cultural exchange, as selfish an experience as it is for the traveler, has effects that go both ways.

As I learn the implications of my visits, with each trip and interview, it becomes a little harder to parachute in, probe into people’s lives, and return to my air-conditioned safe haven.