Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Mountain

Today marks the fifth day of rain in Zobue.  We are collecting rainwater on our front porch, but we cannot possibly use it quickly enough.  Water is everywhere.  It sloshes out of our collection buckets and cascades down the stairs of the porch.  It gushes down the paths and pools in our front yard.  It leaks through innumerable holes in our ceiling and runs out the door in tiny rivulets.

Collecting rainwater on our porch

The view across the front yard during a rainstorm

It is hard to have any big adventures when the weather is so rainy.  The past few days have cold and wet.  For hours at a time, I have been sitting wrapped in a blanket, holding a cup of tea and my Portuguese-language copy of Harry Potter.  Because I am not having any adventures, however, does not mean that I don’t have any to share.  I would like to take you with me on an old adventure.  This is one that I had two weeks ago, when the weather was fair and sunny. 

First, I would like to introduce you to the town of Zobue.  This is the town where we live, and it is on the border of Mozambique and Malawi.  Mozambique, especially the central thumb of Mozambique, is generally flat and fairly hot.  Other towns in our province have desert ecosystems and suffer from draughts and immense heat.  Our town, however, is in the mountains.  Specifically, we live in the foothills of the Angonian Plateau, which spills from Malawi into Mozambique.  From the mountains of Malawi, we get cold air and rain. 

There is one main road that runs through town.  This road enters Mozambique through the mountains and runs down, down, down into the desert of central Mozambique and the scorched, scarred landscape of Tete City.  The road is fairly straight as it passes through Zobue.  

The Border Town of Zobue, Mozambique

Dan and I live in a little yellow house in the middle of a dense neighborhood.  We live close to the school and to the only hotel, Quinta Monte Zobue.  Bordering our neighborhood is a patchwork quilt of fields and vegetable gardens.  Beyond these fields, towards Malawi, rise the mountains of the Angonian Plateau.  The actual border of Mozambique is woven along the crests of the mountain peaks. 

The plan was to climb one of these mountains.  Not, as Dan put it, “the big one,”- Mount Zobue- but the “little one” next door.  We were being taken up the mountain by a hand-me-down friend, Gift Mponda.  Educated in Malawi with a knack for speaking “bombastic English,” Gift had been a friend of the previous volunteers in Zobue.  By default, as so often happens to replacement volunteers, he is now our friend, too. 

We met Gift near Quinta Monte Zobue at around 7:30AM.  We were supposed to meet at seven, but here in Mozambique, time is fluid and all quoted times are considered to be approximations.  People will always be late and expect you to be late, too.  No apology is necessary.
Dan and I had decided to bring the dog with us on our hike.  Our rational was this- it would be good exercise for our little stay-at-home puppy and, when he was tired, he would be easy to carry.  It turned out to be a good decision, as he made a useful conversation piece.  Gift appreciated the fact that we had given our dog a Chewa name. 

Bwino goes on an adventure

“Bwino is a good name,” he said.  “All the children can say Bwino.”
I brought a tote with me.  When the puppy began to tire and lag behind, Dan would scruff him by the neck and drop him in.  It was like hiking with a very young child.

Mount Zobue over the fields on the edge of town

With Gift, we weaved upwards towards the mountain.  The trails that we were following were sturdy dirt paths, skirting the edges of active crop fields.  Farmland in Mozambique is uneven and roughly hewn by hand, with edges and shapes that are very approximate.  We meandered until we reached a tiny village- a cluster of mut huts, really, on a swept patch of sandy soil. 
“We go this way,” Gift said, pointing out of the village and up the slanted face of the adjacent mountain. 
“Straight up?”  We asked.  I don’t know why I was surprised.  We had been warned.  

We began to climb the mountain the old-fashioned way.  Trails?  Switchbacks?  Ha. We put our feet on the slabs of granite, checked for traction, then slowly, meticulously, walked/climbed/scaled the rock face.  Bwino tossed around in my bag, nervously.  Often, the rocks were wet or simply too steep and I was forced to use my hands. 
The views kept getting better and better.  First, we had a delightful view of the tiny village below us.  In this village, there were no more than ten or twelve huts, sharing a common patch of sandy ground.  Surrounding the huts, spreading outward from the direction of the mountain, were the fields that belonged to the families within the village.

Little village surrounded by fields and forest

Further uphill, we gained a commanding view of Monte Zobue. 

Lisa and Bwino with Mount Zobue in the distance

Dan, with Mount Zobue in the distance.  Behind him is Malawi.

It quickly became apparent, however, that Gift did not know or did not remember the way up the mountain.  We tried a few different approaches, but most of these resulted in dead ends.  We finally ended up pushing our way through a dense seam of underbrush in a ragged-looking gully.  I prayed against snakes and landmines.  Gift led the way as we clobbered a route through uncharted territory. 
Finally, we scaled the last slab to reach the top of the mountain.  The view that opened up before us was incredibly jagged and vast.  Malawi is even more mountainous than our corner of Tete, and even greener than I had imagined.  A hawk was soaring over the edge of the mountain, letting out a shrill and redundant keer as he circled the peak. 
A white pillar demarcated the border between Mozambique and Malawi.  It read “1956.”  Dan and I circled around the top of the mountain, marveling.  

At the top of the mountain, looking down over Malawi

Yellow flowers at the top of the mountain

Border marker:  The division between Mozambique and Malawi

“Thank you so much,” we said to Gift.  “This is amazing.”  Upon reaching the summit, we had immediately forgiven him for his rather forgetful path-making.
We stayed for some time.  Dan sat or wandered around with a sleeping puppy in his arms.  I took pictures of each plant and of the views down either side of the mountain.  

Flower at the top of the mountain

Dan holds a sleeping puppy

Flower at the top of the mountain

Finally, Gift spoke up.  “Shall we depart?”
“Yes,” I said.  “Thank you so much.”  
The way down was also difficult, though we took a different approach.  From the top of the mountain, Gift trotted to the a good vantage point.  He then cupped his hands around his mouth and called out to a boy working in the fields below.
“Oi there, boy!  We can’t get down!  Climb this mountain and show us the way!”
I assume that’s what he said, at least.  He was speaking in Chewa.  At any rate, the boy ran up the mountainside like a baboon and, wordlessly, beckoned us to follow him.  He led us around a crag and over a sharp slope that dropped off into thin air.  He pointed down down the slope and then made a sudden, curving motion with his hand.  Following his gaze, we mapped out a plan. We could see that, if we maintained our footing, we could slowly make our way to the right and onto a series of natural shelves.  From there, we could safely rejoin one of many paths around the bottom of the mountain. The boy's route was much steeper, but must faster than our original path up the mountain.  For a barefooted, surefooted, mountain goat of a boy, this was the best option.  For a woman in a skirt with a squirming dog in her arms, it was a little more treacherous.  Nevertheless, we made it down.  I had to pass the dog to Dan, though, in order to use my hands.
“Next time,” I said, wiping my palms on my skirt and recollecting Bwino from around Dan’s neck, “I am wearing pants.  And choosing my own path.”

Dan and Bwino climbing down the mountain

It should have been a straight shot home from there, but we were rather at Gift’s mercy.  To our surprise, he didn’t take us back to town.  Instead, he led us to his childhood home in the fields along the outskirts of town. 
His compound was an unfenced cluster of mud homes around a central, circular mud-brick kitchen.  The dirt around the homes was swept smooth and stomped flat.  Gift’s personal home, the home he uses when he is on holiday, is a two room house that is no more than eight feet by eight feet wide.  The first room, a foyer of sorts, fit two chairs and a tiny end table.  The bedroom, he wouldn’t let us see.
“I’m sorry,” he said.  “It is too dirty.”
Gift ushered us to take a seat in his little house and to “rest for a while.”  This was very kind of him, and a very Mozambican gesture.  Mozambicans, I am learning, love the “Pop-In” visitor.  People will come to visit while you are elbows-deep in laundry water or while you are running to the latrine.  They will arrive unannounced and, worse than that, they will stay.  Sometimes they will stay for hours until you have no choice but to say, “I’m awfully sorry, but I just pooped my pants.”
In this case, Gift was being very polite.  Unfortunately, we weren’t tired at all.  In fact, we were full of energy.  Furthermore, since we had just had a long hike together, we had nothing to talk about.  Nevertheless, custom dictated that we should sit.  And so we sat.
The room was so small that, from my chair, with my back against the wall, I could stretch out my feet to the opposite wall.  Gift sat silently in a third chair that he had crowded in from the bedroom (I had helped him wiggle it through the door) and smiled at us.  I formed sand piles in the dirt floor with my sandals.  Little boys crowded into the doorway to watch us. 
“These are my brothers,” said Gift.  “These two,” he added, gesturing to a boy of about eight and to another, smaller boy, “Sleep with me in my room.” 
Some of the brothers were trying to drag a toddler over to come see us, but he was crying and sobbing hysterically.  Dan and I have noticed that a few of the little ones, especially if they grew up in the campo, have a sort of Halloween-monster fear of white people.  The crying boy became inconsolable and eventually, his brothers gave up and resumed their post in the door frame.
“So, do you have snakes here?”  I asked.  I have always been interested in snakes, and I find that snakes in Mozambique are especially fascinating.  Mozambique is home to several dangerous species, including the Mozambican spitting cobra, the puff adder, boomslang, and the black mamba.  I have never seen a live snake here in Zobue, but I am cautious when I cross through fields and high grass.  
“Yes,” said Gift, slowly.  “We have snakes.”
I don’t think I will ever be able to explain my fascination with snakes to a Mozambican.  How can I explain that deep down, I really and truly love snakes?  There are so many questions I want to ask that I will never find answers to:  What are the chances that I will come across a spitting cobra?  A black mamba?  How many have you seen in your life?  How long are they?  How aggressive?  What do they look like, really?  Will they enter a house?  Have you ever had one inside your compound?  Do you know anyone who has died from a mamba bite?  Cobra bite?  Have you ever had dogs, chickens, monkeys killed by snakes?   TELL ME EVERYTHING YOU KNOW ABOUT SNAKES IN MOZAMBIQUE. 
Unfortunately, Mozambicans hate snakes and are reluctant to talk about them at length. 
“Have you ever had a snake near your house?”  I asked. 
“Yes,” said Gift.  “That is why I wear those rubber boots whenever I go to the fields or even walk around my house.  One bite from a snake and I cannot work any longer.”
The pragmatism kills me.  For Gift, the most important thing is that he is working.  He has a family of younger brothers to support. For Gift, the fear is not of dying.  It is of being unable to help his family.
“How about monkeys?”  I asked.  “Do they ever come into the fields?”
“Yes,” said Gift, “but many people used to kill them.  The black man and the baboon do not coexist in harmony.”
After about thirty minutes of sitting and making small talk in the dirt-floor foyer, we left, clearing a path through Gift’s innumerable swarm of little brothers.  As we departed, I could see that the name scratched on the door read:
Gift Mponda
I asked Gift if I could take his picture in front of his fields.  It really was a beautiful place.  Behind the rolling hills of green crops, Monte Zobue was towering like a sentinel.  It was as if the Peace Corps, in a stroke of kindness and understanding, had placed us back home in our beloved Yosemite. 

Gift at his family home in Zobue, Mozambique

The Peace Corps got it exactly right when they placed us in Zobue.  Given a choice between the beach and the mountains, I would much prefer to live in at altitude.  Here, there is dynamic hiking and hundreds of footpaths to explore.  We will have a lot of visitors over the next two years, which is something that I am very happy about.

Now, if only it would stop raining so that we could go outside.

Dan overlooks the border between Malawi and Mozambique

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