This is a blog about my travels. My "regular" life is much too boring to bother blogging about.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Lilongwe, Malawi

This is the story of how I became a Mozambican firefighter, drank palm wine in a Vilankulo slum, was almost robbed (kind of) and ended up eating Korean food in a totally different country.

So on my last day in Vilankulo, I went on a dhow safari to the Archipelago de Bazaruto. It was a waste of time and money, but is important because a guy named Vanesio arranged it for me. He also arranged trips for the two Dutch guys I was traveling with (Kjeld and Rainier are their names). He approached me on the street and said that he worked with a guy named Rodrigues who did dhow safaris. It sounded sketchy - I asked him where the office was, or to show me the boat I'd be going on. I didn't really get any satisfactory answers. I stalled for an afternoon while I waited for the Dutch guys to get back, but Vanesio intercepted me before I could find them. So I agreed to pay him on behalf of "Rodrigues"; I was convinced it was a scam.

Turns out it wasn't. Kjeld and Rainier vouched for Vanesio and Rodrigues. We had beers later and ran into Vanesio. He invited us over to his house for dinner the next day. His girlfriend was evidently an amazing cook and would make us matapa with crap. It would cost us sabout $10, which is about normal price in Mozambique when crustaceans are involved. We agreed.

On Friday morning, I met Vanesio at 8:00 AM and we began walking to the dock where the dhow was anchored. On the way, we saw a house on fire. There are no firefighters in Vilankulo; there is barely running water in Vilankulo, and there aren't any high pressure hoses. People were running down to the beach, filling buckets with water and then hurling it into the flames. Those without buckets took armfuls of sand and did the same. Half the town was there. I ran back to my hostel and got some buckets, and joined in the fight. Some burly dudes appropriated my buckets, so I switched to throwing sand. Eventually we subdued the fire. The frame was still standing, but was severly damaged. The roof, which was made of straw, was completely ruined. More importantly, we saved the bar next door. Because god forbid a bar burns down.

After the dhow trip, it was time for supper. Since Vanesio worked in town and spoke perfect English (extremely rare in Mozambique), I assumed he was relatively wealthy. Turns out he lived in the slums of Vilankulo, probably 3 km away from the city centre. He lived in a small shack made of sticks with a thatched roof. So did everyone else in that area. His girlfriend, Giovencia, prepared absolutely fantastic food, matapa with soft shell crab. Most Mozambican food is amazing, that has been the definite highlight of my trip here. The local staple is allegedly xima, which is cassava grain. But it seems like nobody bothers eating that if something else is available, like rice or very tasty Portuguese style bread. Chicken is the most widely available meat, and it's usually served with piri-piri (which, by the way, is Mozambican in origin). On the coast, there are amazing prawns and fish and squid and crayfish. There are also all sorts of local greens too, like matapa, which is the leafy part of a cassava plant. And the fruit... oh my gosh don't get me started. I've had the best pineapples and bananas and mangoes of my life here, better even than in Central America.

We ate way more than $10 worth. I had two servings of matapa and crab (served with rice), and then an entire barracuda. Vanesio said that I ate like a Mozambican because I suck every last ounce of meat from the fish head; that may be the best compliment I've received in a while. While we ate, random people showed up. There was a 60 year old man, possibly drunk, who spouted complete nonesense. Mozambicans are unbelievably respectful to seniors, so we were forced to listen. But hey, I figure that if you live until you're 60 in Mozambique, you should be able to do whatever you want. Vanesio's friends stopped by. There was Maneiro, Benny, Paul (not his real name, I didn't get why he used a pseudonym) and a bunch of other guys who didn't say much. After we finished the meal, these guys began engaging in the preferred pastime of most Mozambican men: getting incomprehensibly drunk. There was beer, wine, local gin; I finally tasted palm wine and it was amazing; I also tasted some local brew that shockingly didn't blind me. Before long everyone was crocked, which was a bad idea for me as I had a 4 AM bus the next morning, and having a great time. I speak Portuguese better when I've drank palm wine. Eventually Paul, who is a street hawker, tried to sell us random knick-knacks and the discussion turned to money and became sullen; but this only lasted a while and we were soon having a good time again. At 11:30 PM, we left; the Mozambicans had to walk us back to town because there was a 100% chance we would have been jumped if we walked alone. There were parties everywhere in the slums, and we stopped at a few. In contrast, the town was completely dead but we hit a few bars anyway. I finally got to sleep at about 1:00 AM and woke up two hours later with a raging headache.

I am guessing that 0.000001% of visitors to Mozambique have experiences like that.

I realized in Vilankulo that I needed to visit another country. My Mozambique visa lasted for only 30 days, which is shorter than my trip. The penalty for overstaying a visa is about $500 US, so that was not an option. I decided to go to Malawi, and began making my way there after I left Vilankulo. The first stop was Chimoio, dusty impoverished city in the interior. I was hoping to organize a trip to the Gorongosa National Park from there, but I learned that the park has upped their fees by about 200% in order to cater to rich travelers. It was disappointing, since Gorongosa promised to be my best and perhaps only chance to go on safari and see large animals. I probably won't get to do that now. There was no reason to stay in Chimoio. I hated that town and felt very unsafe there. Someone tried to rob me there, kind of. I was walking back to the hostel when the following exchange happened:

Random Mozambican (angrily): HEY WHITE! WHITE! WHITE!
Me: Hello, how are you?
RM: Let's go have a party. (points menacingly to an abandoned building)
Me: No, thank you.
RM: Fuck you! (Gives me the finger)

A rather crude at robbery, and now I can actually laugh about it. But at the time I was quite shaken. I thought the guy was going to take a run at me, so I had balled up my fists. I would have punched him in the balls, I fight dirty. That was definitely the nastiest exchange I've had with anyone on any of my travels.

I left Chimoio the next morning for Tete, where I got a room from a sullen woman who barely spoke Portuguese. There was no running water or electricity and the shower consisted of a bucket filled with water. The next day, I took two chapas to the border, where I got to see how corrupt both these countries are. On the Mozambican side, people passed their passports to the agents with money in them; a Zambian guy I met told me that Mozambican customs agents outright refuse to stamp passports if they're not payed first. Mine was stamped with little fuss. The same exercise was repreated on the Malawian side, but this time I was asked for a bribe. I calmly replied that I knew that Commonwealth countries didn't have to pay for visas in Malawi, and if the agent liked we call my embassy in Lilongwe to double check. That did the trick.

I am now in Lilongwe, and I ate Korean food last night because the place was right next door to my guesthouse and people in Lilongwe tend to get stabbed if they walk around by themselves. It was the worst Korean food I've ever had in my life.


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