Friday, January 4, 2013

Island Christmas

In Mozambique, as in much of the rest of the world, December 25 is a special holiday.  But because only about 40% of the Mozambican population is Christian, the day is celebrated with a different, and more inclusive, non-religious name:  Dia da Familia.

Because this holiday-- Family Day-- falls right in the middle of the summer holidays, most Mozambicans are out and about.  Many of our students leave town to visit their families in the city, and Zobue fills up with strangers.  Home becomes nearly unrecognizable.

Though Dan and I had just returned from a three-week trip to South Africa, it was decided that we would leave our house and travel again for Christmas.  After all, the school was empty and our fellow teachers were also still on holiday.

"It's not like we'll impress anybody by staying here," we reasoned.

And so, after only four days at home, Dan and I repacked, kissed our dog goodbye, and hit the road.  Passports and backpacks in hand, we were headed to Mozambique Island.

To Ilha:  Through Malawi and northern Mozambique

Though we had done a significant amount of travel (Maputo, Tofo, Vilankulo, Chimoio, and Lake Malawi) up until that point, I think that we underestimated the costs and difficulties of travel in "the North."  Where washed-out roads, rising fuel costs, and a lack of private vehicles are the norm, travel is less of a frivolity and more of an exercise in will power and physical endurance.

Because we live on the border between Mozambique and Malawi, it made sense for us to take the "shortcut" through Malawi and into the other size of Mozambique.  It was, after all, a mere 1,000 kilometers from us to the sea.  In a private car, the journey from Zobue to Mozambique Island would have lasted a mere 13 or 14 hours.

"Two days," we figured.  "Or one and a half.  No problem."

We briefly consulted a guidebook, sketched out a map of central Malawi, and tightened our straps.  We had no idea, however, how taxing it would be.

Day 1 (Saturday, December 22)  
Zobue, Mozambique to Cuamba, Mozambique (via Malawi)

5:45AM:  Dan and I arrive at the border post only to find that an entire bus had arrived only moments before.  Spend 1 hour in line, checking map and route nervously.

7:00AM:  Finish checking in at both border posts (Mozambique and Malawi).  Proceed to nearest minibus and wait an hour for departure.

8:30AM:  Arrive in Zalewa, Malawi.  Minibus conductors have a price battle over who will take us to our next destination ("900 Kwacha!"  "700!"  "500!") and we accept the lowest bid.  After all of this excitement, we still wait an hour for departure.  Sweating profusely at this point.   Exposed skin is starting to burn.

10:00AM:  Arrive in Balaka, Malawi.  We are picked up by a minibus driver headed in the (sort of) right direction.  He agrees to arrange a transfer for us, which makes us incredibly nervous.  A fight breaks out in the transit station, wherein our conductor is pulled from our vehicle and punched in the face.

10:30AM:  Minibus that left the station now decides to turn around and go back to look for more people.

12:30PM:  Arrive in Mangochi, Malawi.  At this point, we are just 50 kilometers from the (other) Malawi/Mozambique border, and we are feeling confident in our ability to arrive in Cuamba before sunset.

1:00PM:  Arrange a ride with a man who says he is leaving immediately for the border.  We agree to pay too much (1,000 Kwacha each) for the privilege of sitting in the front.

1:30PM:  Instead of leaving, our ride begins to load up the back of the truck at several shops around town.

2:00PM:  After an hour, we are thoroughly annoyed.  Our driver ensures us that he is leaving immediately.

2:30PM:  Our driver continues to make stops and load cargo onto the back of his truck.  We are irritated and exit the cab of the truck.  Driver follows us with a cohort of cronies.

2:35PM:  Driver bruises my wrist, yelling at me in a combination of Chewa and English.  Dan pushes the driver and is shoved in return.  We are severely outnumbered.  The driver insistes that we owe him 2,000 Kwacha ($8 US), and that he will "kill us."

2:36PM:  Dan and I break away and make dash for the police station.

3:30PM:  After explaining our situation and asking for help, the transit police find a ride for us on a government vehicle.  Dan and I keep looking over our shoulder as we cross over the border into Mozambique.

3:45PM:  A fish-tailing bike taxi brings us from the border town of Chiponde (Malawi) to Mandimba (Mozambique)

4:00PM:  We catch a ride in an open-back truck that is headed towards Cuamba.  The conductor announces that we will be there in two hours.

4:15PM:  It comes to our attention that the road is not paved.  I am sitting on my bag with a baby on my lap and an elbow in my back.  Somebody is sitting on top of my feet.

6:00PM:  The sky is growing dark, lightning is flashing in the distance, and the mountains that surround  Cuamba are still nowhere to be found.

8:00PM:  Arrive in Cuamba under a blanket of gentle mist.  We have been traveling for 14 hours and are arriving in a strange town after dark.  Settle into a pensao (cheap hotel) for chicken and a place to sleep.

Midnight:  I discover that the mosquito net is riddled with holes.

Day 2 (Sunday, December 23)
Cuamba, Mozambique to Nampula, Mozambique

3:45AM:  Awake and walking to the train station.  The ticket office was closed the night before, and if we can't get tickets for the Sunday morning train, we are stuck in Cuamba until Tuesday.

4:00AM:  Lots of pushing and shoving in line.  It turns out that there is a women's line and a men's line, and that the women's line moves much faster.

4:15AM:  I arrive at the ticket window only to find out that there are no more second class tickets.  I have been warned against taking third class, but see no other choice.

"Does there exist a first class?"  I ask.

The ticket seller shakes his head, frowning, and I pocket two third class tickets.

5:00AM:  The line at the gate has turned into a surge, as people begin to push and shove.  The porters look nervous.

5:15AM:  Grown men push women and children out of the way in their rush to get onto the train.  Third class is packed like a cattle car, with between 100 and 200 people squeezed into every compartment.  Dan and I stand awkwardly in the train toilets (two alcoves with holes in the floor), trying to decided what to do.

6:00AM:  We hear news of a vacancy in second class, and leap on the opportunity.  At first, we are thrilled.  For 400 Meticais ($16), we have secured two bunks in a second class cabin.  Day 2 seems to be much going smoother than Day 1.

6:30AM:  Dan realizes that he has been robbed.  His beloved new phone (from South Africa), had been stolen right out of his pocket.  Hurt and near tears, he retires to the top bunk.  The train pulls out of the station.

7:00AM:  What began as a cabin with four people quickly becomes a cabin for six, then eight.

8:00AM:  After our first stop, our cabin is getting incredibly crowded.  There are now 12 people sitting in our cabin, and most of them are buying and storing bags and bags of produce.

9:00AM:  I am enjoying myself, hanging out of the train window and taking pictures.  Dan is still upset, however, and is dozing on and off in the top bunk.

10:00AM:  There is no longer room for me to sit in my own cabin.

11:00AM:  The dining car is full to the bursting point, and its occupants (mostly men) are getting pretty drunk and rowdy.

12:00PM:  At every station, the train stops for 5 to 45 minutes.  There doesn't seem to be a lot of passenger interchange, just loud and raucous commerce through the windows of the train.  We have already stopped at 8 stations.

1:00PM:  I yell at a man to keep him from storing mangoes on Dan's bed.

"Can't you see there's someone sleeping there?"  I asked.  "Have some respect."

I am no longer nice.  Or patient.

2:00PM:  We are pulling out of a station when we hear a long scream followed by a stream of successive wails.  Our train, it seems, has hit someone.  This seems to cause a bizarre mix of horror and excitement, and the train squeals to a stop.

2:05PM:  Vendors take this opportunity to sell more products, as a crowd of fascinated onlookers rush to the scene of the accident.

"Dead," confirms a man standing next to me.  "Definitely dead."

2:30PM:  The train starts up again, amidst a flurry of rumors.  A conductor near my car informs me that, while our train did just hit somebody, that individual did not die.

"Apparently," he says, "the man was drunk and trying to sneak into a car.  Security caught him and pushed him away, where he fell back onto the tracks."

"What happened then?"  I ask.

"The train ran over his leg," says the conductor.  He makes a cutting motion with his hand.  "The doctors will cut it right off."

How he knows that, I have no idea.

5:00PM:  The hallways are getting as crowded as the cabins themselves, as we pick up passengers and produce along our 12 hour journey.  It is impossible to go to the bathroom without kicking somebody or ripping a bag of mangoes.

6:30PM:  We arrive in Nampula after dark.  I have taken a bunch of great pictures, but Dan is still sad and curled up in his bunk.  We arrange a taxi to take us to our hotel, falling asleep by 8PM.

Day 3 (Monday, December 24)
Nampula, Mozambique to Mozambique Island

5:30AM:  Dan and I sleep in until 5:30AM

7:00AM:  Loaded with bags and prepared for the final leg of the journey, Dan and I find the bus station and secure a bus to Ilha.

9:00AM:  Two hours later, the bus is packed to the gills and ready to go.  Dan has a man sitting between his legs and I am sitting crosslegged on top of my bag.  It is about 105 degrees outside.

9:05AM:  Our driver decides to stop for gas and oil.  Everybody has to pile out while the conductor applies the oil.   Then, the driver pumps the gas.  He is on his cell phone and the engine is still running.

9:30AM:  Go

10:00AM:  Stop

10:30AM:  Go

12:00PM:  Stop

12:30PM:  Go

1:00PM:  Stop

1:30PM:  Go

2:00PM:  Switch vehicles and cross the bridge onto Mozambique Island.

After 14 different vehicles, 33 hours of travel, and countless itchy mosquito bites, we finally make it to Mozambique's most famous and sought-after tourist destination.  We are sweaty, battered, robbed, and bruised, but we are also relieved.  It is Christmas Eve and we are together on one of the most beautiful islands on the eastern coast of Africa.

For the moment, the subject of future travel is dropped.  One thing is tacitly understood, however.  We will be taking a different route on the return trip home.

Return from Ilha:  From Nampula to Chimoio to Tete

The trip back, as it happened, was much more serene.  We stayed with Peace Corps volunteers in Mocuba (Zambezia) and Chimoio and hitchhiked most of the way.  Though we were still pulling 14-hour days and arriving long after dark, our rides were reliable, safe, and uneventful.  And although our return route was much longer (1,600 kilometers versus 1,000), we actually made it in fewer hours (32 versus 33) and for less money (1,500 Meticais versus 2,650 Meticais).

In the end, we were incredibly grateful and glad that we went.  We saw huge swaths of the country and experienced wonderful things.  A train ride from Cuamba to Nampula?  Check.  Christmas on a tropical island?  Check.  New Year's Eve with friends in Chimoio?  Check.  Home again, dog safe, house untouched?  Check, check, check!

And now, the pictures!

The train from Cuamba to Nampula (Mozambique)
Scenic mountains and forests as seen from the train
A little girl watches villages as they pass 
Dan on his third-level bunk (8 feet off the ground) on the train from Cuamba to Nampula
One of our bunk mates takes a nap 
The rather perilous path to the dining car
Waiting hours for trains to arrive, vendors rush to sell their products through the windows
Braving mud, showers, and lightning, vendors sell chicken and bean-pastries through the open windows on the train
Vendors negotiate prices at a furious rate.  Buyers scoop up basins of mangos, dump them
on the floor of the train, and then toss the basin out the window as the train begins to move.
One basin of mangoes for 5 Meticais ($0.15 US)
Vendors rush to the third-class compartments.  With between 100-200 passengers per car
(versus about 40 in second class), the third-class compartments are highly favored by vendors
Nearing Nampula:  Sunset

The Destination:  Ilha de Mozambique
(Mozambique Island)

Ilha de Mozambique:  Overview, Shape, and Location in Mozambique

Was it worth it, you might wonder?  All of that travel and stress- stolen phone, bruised bottom, death threats- for a trip to a tiny little island in the Indian Ocean?  At about 2 kilometers long and between 200 and 500 meters wide, Ilha de Mozambique is barely even visible on most country maps.  Where is the appeal?

Ilha (eel-yuh) de Mozambique, often referred to as just Ilha, is one of the oldest continually occupied locations in Southern Africa, and a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The island is colorful, historic, and hauntingly beautiful.  Connected to the mainland by a delicate 3.5 kilometer bridge, Ilha glitters on the horizon like an undiscovered gem.

Distant?  Yes.  Worthy?  Absolutely.

A 3.5 km bridge connects Ilha to the mainland
Fishing boats (dhows) at dusk:  Mozambique Island as seen from the bridge

First occupied by Bantu-speaking people, Arab traders used Mozambique Island as a port and boat building center starting at around 500AD.  When Vasco de Gama arrived in 1498AD, it was the Arabs who held sway over this area of the east-African coast.  Though the Arabs were able to repel Portuguese expansion along the central East African coast (Kenya and Tanzania), the Portuguese managed to claim and secure Mozambique Island as their own.  As the Portuguese strengthened their hold on the Indian Ocean, Mozambique Island was declared to be the capital of Portuguese East Africa.

Over the next few hundred years, Ilha was developed to meet the needs of the Portuguese.  The island was declared a Portuguese port and naval base in 1507, and the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte was built in 1522.  Construction on the fort began in 1558 and would continue for the next forty years.  The Portuguese settlement (Stone Town) was built throughout the sixteenth century.  The island withstood attacks by the Dutch in 1607 and 1608 and saw the construction of East Africa's grandest hospital in 1877.  Mozambique Island was the capital of Mozambique for nearly 400 years before finally being replaced by a more strategically-relevant Maputo (in the far south).  By the 1960's, Ilha was all but abandoned by the Portuguese.

Today, the island is a beautiful, breathing relic.  Some 15,000 people still live on the Ilha, mostly in the bairros on the southern half.  The northern half of the island (Stone Town) is home to a number of historic buildings, including the hospital, fort, museum, and several historic churches, temples, and mosques.  From the twisted, painted corridors of Stone Town to the cold walls of the old fort, Ilha is steeped in history and awaiting love and discovery.

The old Portuguese settlement, built largely in the sixteenth century, is known as Stone Town
The alleyways and corridors of Stone Town occupy the north half of Mozambique Island
Colorful pastels mark a quiet street near Ruby Backpackers (Stone Town)
Dawn on the streets of Ilha (Stone Town)
Though largely abandoned by the Portuguese, Stone Town is maintained by a dynamic mix of new owners:
Mozambican, Indian, Arabian, and Portuguese families share space with hoteliers, restrauntiers,
and a variety of charity, missionary, and public health organizations
While some of Stone Town's buildings have been lovingly painted and restored, others are left to crumble
New and Old
Sun, cyclones, and salt water take a toll on even the most beloved structures
(on the right, the corner of the island's largest mosque)
Fresh paint and restorations
Weathering and disrepair 
Crumbling mansions and beautiful pastels characterize the streets of Stone Town
An empty house in the heart of Stone Town
The small tree takes root in an abandoned door frame
Respectful of the island's uniform decor, Millenium Bim (Bank) is tastefully tucked away
amongst the colonial villas of Stone Town
Bright colors pop in the island sunlight
Through water is both collected in cisterns and pumped in from the mainland, good drinking water can be hard
 to come by.  Here, Dan braves the morning heat to secure two bottles of mineral water (at $1.00 US each)
A woman collects water from an antique cistern in Stone Town
The high walls of Stone Town provide late afternoon shade for these two boys on their bicycle
The Church of Santo Antonio, on the southeastern point of the island
View of the Indian Ocean from along the main promenade 
A life-sized statue of the poet Camoes gazes out across the Indian Ocean
A tree skirts the path in one of Ilha's two botanical gardens
Sunrise over the lighthouse on Goa Island
A holiday beer (23 oz Manica) at one of Ilha's many restaurants
Matapa Siri-Siri (cashew and seaweed stew) with hot sauce, samosas, and pao
Food featured on Anthony Bordain's Mozambique edition of "No Reservations"
Picking out Christmas presents:  We selected three of these capulanas for our Christmas gifts to one another
Fortaleza Sao Sebastiao:  Dominating the northeastern tip of the island, this
Portuguese fort was commissioned in 1558.  
In lieu of maps, plaques, or other useful orientation tools, Fortaleza Sao Sebastiao only offers this
simple, unlabled diorama.  Here, Dan tries to decipher his location within the fortress.  
The fortress is a huge network of confusing passageways, balconies, and darkened rooms.
None of these, of course, are labeled.  
Partially refurbished battlements overlook the northern end of the island
Flowers grow in a crack on an empty windowsill
A view from within the fort
Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte.  Built in 1522, the chapel is considered to be the oldest
European building in the Southern Hemisphere
Looking into the courtyard from the newly renovated fort walls
Governor's Residence (now a museum) and the adjoining Museum of Sacred Art
Inside the museums: Entrance to the Governor's Residence,
Museum of Sacred Art, and the Marine Museum
Entrance to the now-partially-derelict Hospital of Mozambique.  Constructed in 1877, the hospital
was once considered to be the most important hospital south of the Sahara.  After the Mozambican
civil war, the hospital was repainted and partially reconstructed.  The hospital is still functioning,
although sections of the complex have been re-appropriated for residential use.
Eerie, empty rooms abound in the old Hospital of Mozambique
Once decorated with gardens and fountains, the hospital is now chipped and overgrown
A wheelchair sits abandoned
Several feral cats have made their home in the active, open-air waiting room
Dan makes his way through the original hospital entrance
Despite being rehabilitated in 1994 and 1995, the hospital is still slightly worse for the wear
Sections of the old hospital are now inhabited by families.  Here, clothes are being dried on the hospital veranda
Our lodging:  Mooxeleliya Lodge.  Bed, bath, and breakfast on a tropical island for less than $35 a night.
A full moon shines over Ilha as a car drives slowly along the main promenade

Have a
Merry Christmas
Happy Family Day
A Delightfully Wonderful 
Happy New Year!


  1. Lovely and amazing! Glad you made it through your travels safely -- you will look back on these adventures with awe that you did and saw so much. Good on you!

  2. After returning home from working at Novos Horizontes in Nampula I stumbled across this blog and have been reading it for leisure ever since. I'm reminded of something I loved/miss every time! Ihla was definitely my favorite place in Mozambique, and Ruby's was an excellent place to stay (especially with a group of about six people as I did). I know you've returned home already, but my second favorite place was Chocas beach. Pemba is a bit overrated if you ask me, but Carusca in Chocas was the most beautiful, isolated place I've ever been!