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.