I Left My Heart (and my 
Minolta SLR) On The 
Avenida De Republica

Karen Treanor
 

© Copyright 2001 by Karen Treanor

Photo of a swamp plant (c)2003 by Richard Loller.
Given the possibilities, it is probably amazing that more travelers don't get into trouble when
they first go overseas. Here's one family's account of what it was like in pre-independence
Mozambique in the 1970s.

Trawling through the rich broth of the Internet recently, I stumbled across a listing for hotels in Southern Africa and discovered to my amazement that there was now a Holiday Inn in Mozambique. This bit of trivia threw me into a mental time warp and I saw again our first trip to Mozambique, many years ago.

My husband and I had gone to the landlocked Kingdom of Swaziland as Peace Corps Volunteers. This beautiful part of southern Africa offers a lot to see and do, but has no large cities. After we had been there a year, we longed to be in a big city, just for a few days. Anywhere in South Africa was out of the question: they were at the height of their 'every foreigner is a troublemaker' phase, and wouldn't give visas to any Peace Corps people. That left the other international neighbour, Mozambique.

Friends recommended a beachside hotel in the capital, Lourenço Marques. After a bit of scrimping and making arrangements for the children, we set off for Mozambique one long weekend. We were by no means seasoned travelers and it didn't occur to us we might need to book ahead at the Costa Whatsit. (Even after 30 years, I'm not game to use the real name.)

We entered Mozambique through the border post at Nomahasha. Leaving the Swazi side was simple enough, but entering the Portuguese side was another matter. Mustached men in uniforms stood unsmilingly on guard, and examined our passports with suspicious eyes. We were quizzed about what we were bringing into the country, what the purpose of our visit was, and given a large sheet of paper with various warnings on it about what we could and could not do. The most bizarre item on the list was "It is forbidden to make mock of banknotes." We had never seen Mozambican money and the idea of making fun of it would never have occurred to us--then.

Once across the border, it was obvious we were no longer in Swaziland. The buildings were brightly painted, mostly in tones of blue, and the look of the place was Mediterranean more than African. Driving through the town we came to an acute left-hand turn and around the corner were flagged down by another uniformed man. Unlike many civil servants we were to meet, his English was quite fluent.

"We weren't speeding, Officer," Gene said as the man approached the car.

"You have crossed the solid white line. That is an offense under our Road Code."

Gene was about to protest but thought better of it.

"You may pay the fine now, or await the arrival of the Magistrate," the officer explained.

Gene later said that all the movies he ever saw about tourists entangled in the laws of third world countries flashed before his eyes. He handed over the fine, equivalent to a couple of decent lunches, and we were waved on our way with a caution to be more careful. .

"That was grossly unfair; I don't think we were across the white line," I fumed, mentally adjusting our budget to take account of the lost money. "And he didn't give you a receipt!"

"If I had opted to wait for the magistrate we'd still be there this time next week," Gene said. "As for a receipt, I wouldn't bet on that money ever seeing the inside of a municipal cash box. In principal, you're right, but looking at it realistically, what would you prefer, a weekend in Lourenço Marques or a weekend in Nomahasha?"

I subsided into grumbles for a while, but the passing scene soon pulled me from this. Along the road by the river we saw trees, huge yellowy-green things that seemed to glow. These were "umkhanyagutsi", the shining ones, also known as fever trees. They sported huge white thorns, and one could only imagine what sort of animal would browse on these.

After a few wrong turns, we rolled up at the Costa Whatsit just on sunset on Friday night after a four-hour journey. Correctly assessing us as people who could easily be fooled, the desk clerk said he was sorry that all the rooms in the hotel were taken, but if we were agreeable, there were some older rooms at the back which were modest but clean.

Had we been more experienced, we'd have insisted on inspecting the room before accepting. Following a smirking porter, we were delivered to the promised modest room. Two wire-frame beds with mismatched bedspreads, a concrete floor, no closet, and a rather antique bathroom whose tiles were more noticeable in their absence than otherwise: that was it. No chairs, no television, and only one naked light bulb.

Not quite what we had expected, but the roof looked solid and the door had a lock. Leaving our suitcase, we went up to the verandah and had dinner while watching the twilight vanish into the ocean. This was the life: the genuine old African Colonial experience. We had a gin and tonic each, and then another. Returning to our suite (it could be termed so because it had a private bathroom), we were about to investigate the hot water supply when the lights went out.

Gene went outside and bailed up a passing waiter. "The lights are out," he said.

"They do that every night when the generator stops. I will get you a candle," said the man.

"Get us two double gin and tonics while you're at it," said Gene, slipping him some of the colourful Mozambican money. (The amount of colour on a country's paper money seems to be in inverse proportions to the size of its GDP.)

Shortly the waiter returned with the drinks and two candles. Luxury. Gene peered at the tray, looking for his change, but the smile on the waiter's face said not to bother.

We lit the candles and lay on the lumpy beds sipping the drinks. Gene said, "I didn't realise that the electrical system only covered the downtown area. Wouldn't you think that the government would see the benefit in tourist dollars if they extended the electricity?"

" Why bother if the hotel proprietors are willing to run generators? Anyway, it's rather quaint. Perhaps these rooms are from the original hotel: we could be experiencing history." I suggested, getting up to tour the room with my candle. "Think of it: the struggling Portuguese colonist and his brave wife, working 20 hours a day to build up their modest hostelry. Finally they achieve success, and they build the big hotel at the front. However, they never forget their humble start, so they preserve this building for sentiment sake. Only special guests are allowed to stay in these historic rooms. And use their historic plumbing." (A very little gin fires a lot of imagination in some people.)

"I hate to intrude a note of reality, but I think it's more likely these rooms are servants' quarters, and the only reason we got them is it's off season and there aren't many guests in the hotel who've brought their nannies along," said Gene.

I decided I wasn't dirty enough to worry about a bath. There wasn't any plug in the tub anyway. I got into my nightgown and crawled between sheets that were coarse even by Jean Valjean's standards.

We lay in the dark, trying to find comfortable positions. After a bit I said "What's that noise?"

Gene listened for a while. "Must be a draft. It sounds like something blowing across floor; leaves, maybe."

I fumbled for the matches and candle. Something fled from the light and hid under Gene's bed. I took a deep breath and said shakily, "Something ran under your bed."

Gene lit his candle and hung over the edge of the bed, peering underneath. Glittering eyes peered back. Lots of them. Slowly losing their fear of the candles, first one and then another and then all one hundred and forty-seven large cockroaches came out to browse on the floor. They were huge and shiny and horrible.

I was raised to believe that next to the devil himself, the one thing nice people don't have anything to do with is cockroaches. I was shuddering so badly I dripped hot wax all over my hand and the bedding.

"Don't waste the liquid wax, I've got an idea," Gene said. Tipping his candle, he quickly glued the nearest cockroach to the floor. Then another. Then I joined in. By the time an hour was up we had wax-entombed cockroaches all over the room. The candles were about to give out, and sunrise was several hours away.

The gin and tonic kicked in and overrode the adrenaline. We fell asleep, leaving the monsters to thrash impotently (or bake in their own juices) in their wax prisons.

By the dim predawn light we got dressed and packed our bag. Gene left me on the verandah of the hotel and went in to do battle with the concierge.

I didn't catch the entire act, but what I did was most entertaining. The culmination was Gene imitating a man riding a wild horse and yelling "Cucuracha, cucuracha grande!" The African staff were in barely-hidden hysterics at this display, while the concierge, with the snooty manner of all his kind, pretended not to understand what the crazy man was trying to tell him.

Gene put me in the car and flung it into gear. We left with a screech of tyres, never more to give our custom to the Costa Whatsit.

"I take it he wanted to be paid for the room?" I enquired.

"He did indeed, but I refused. They should have paid us for our pest-riddance work. Never mind, we'll find something else."

I was beginning to think we'd have to go home to Swaziland: that hotel was the only one we knew of. Luckily, Gene was made of more adventurous fiber than I. We drove down the Avenida de Republica and up the Avenida 24th Julio and a few other main streets. Gene said, "There, that looks like a hotel. Come on!"

Throwing the little car at the precipitous entry ramp, we attained the elevated safety of the car park in front of a large Art Deco building with a sign "Hotel Aviz".

Inside, the lobby was reassuringly clad in mahogany and brass and dark red Axminster; the concierge spoke flawless English, and yes, but of course there was a room for Madame and M'sieur. (We had discovered that many Mozambicans spoke French, and this was to prove helpful more than once. Perhaps the most outlandish instance of the need for a world language came later in the trip when the two Americans used French to communicate with a Shangane waiter in a Portuguese restaurant while trying to order an Italian main course.)

Up we went in a shiny brass and mahogany elevator with a real lift driver, uniform, white gloves and all. Down a long hall we were escorted to our room, where French doors gave on to a balcony with a view over the city. This was more like it, and not a cockroach in sight.

The bathroom was testament to the inventiveness of the tiler: There was tile everywhere. Most of it was black, accented with lemon yellow and what an Irish friend calls "Our Lady blue". The tub was enormous, and had a plug. When we brought our daughter to the hotel on a later trip, she announced with glee "Look, they got a little sink on the floor just for washing your feet!" and was shucking off her shoes and socks before we pulled her away from the bidet.

One of the reasons to come to Mozambique was for Chinese food. Everyone who'd been to LM, as Lourenço Marques was known, had come home to tell of the wonderful Chinese food to be had at the Hong Kong Restaurant.

We dumped our baggage, decided it was too late for breakfast, and set off to sight see until the Hong Kong opened for lunch.

The avenues were wide, as were most of the sidewalks. Every other business seemed to be a roadside café, with tables spilling out onto the sidewalk. Little boys were as busy as last night's cockroaches, selling strips of lottery tickets. Indian shops offered jewelry, artwork and fabrics for sale. Their proprietors, oleaginously friendly, had smiles that seemed to get trapped in their impressive mustaches and never reach their eyes.

The streets were full of interesting people. African men in business suits and well-shined shoes hurried along with briefcases. These were "evolueés", people who had proved their civilisability by adopting Catholicism, speaking Portuguese and obtaining civil service or business jobs. Non-evolved Africans wore casual clothes, often ragged, and always seemed to be looking for something. Women in bright skirts and headscarves bustled around with various burdens on their heads: basins of fruit, bundles of fabric, occasionally a chicken in a cage. Portuguese men, at the top of the social order by virtue of an accident of birth, lounged at cafes drinking tiny cups of thick black coffee, chased by glasses of iced red wine. Workmen of all races toted tool kits and stopped at sidewalk bars to snatch a quick breakfast, also comprising coffee and wine.

Gene was entranced and insisted we stop at a café. With some effort, I got a plain white coffee, but Gene had the espresso and the glass of wine. With this came several dishes of pickled vegetables and a small bowl of French fries. The whole thing cost less than a dollar. We sat watching the world pass by, delighted by the strangeness of it all. An old man, thin as a rake, offered to polish our shoes, and several little boys insisted we buy lottery tickets. We eventually gave in, but never knew how to find out if we had won anything. Somewhere in Mozambique there may be an unclaimed fortune.

At noon, we found the Hong Kong restaurant. The smiling proprietor gave us one look and addressed us in English. In quick order, I saw him size up the next people and speak to them in Portuguese and then switch to Afrikaans for the couple behind them.

When he came to take our order, I asked him how he knew what language to use to each guest. "You are obviously American, Canadian or Australian," he said "You look healthy and confident and seem interested in what you see. The people behind you are clearly Portuguese, see how the wife wears black and the husband pays no attention to her. Then there are the visitors from the Republic: they are looking down their noses at us, but they have seen the table linen is clean so they will eat here even though they do not approve that there is a black man over there at that table."

The food probably wasn't as good as it seemed at the time, but it tasted marvelous after so long without Chinese food. It was hot and fresh and we didn't suffer any stomach upsets, which puts the meal in the top 20% of any traveler's rating.

After lunch, we went out to see more of Lorenço Marques. There was a botanical garden with a bougainvillea trained onto a heavy metal tunnel-shaped trellis. It had been there several hundred years, and underneath were Victorian park benches offering total protection from the sun. In the green darkness it seemed we could feel 400 years of colonial rule striving with patient Africa, and just holding its own.

We saw a large impressive stone building and went up its steps to read the plaque by the door. "Dr. Alvaro Castro Museum. Open 10-4." Whatever it was, it was free, so we went in.

Inside, tall cool dimly lit rooms displayed all manner of artifacts. It was as if some time lord had picked up a natural history museum from 1884 and dropped it down here in the middle of the 20th century. Row upon row of mahogany specimen drawers with brass handles; display cases with moth-eaten animals petrified in not very life-like poses; huge glass jars filled with murky liquid, in which foetuses and natural anomalies floated blindly--the place was a treasure house. A two-headed chicken sat on a shelf next to 8 containers holding fetal elephants at varying stages of their development. Snakes, their vivid colours long leached away by formaldehyde, coiled eternally in death.

After seeing as many pickled deformities and dusty stuffed birds as we could bear, we found our way to the beach. Gene spent a fascinated half-hour watching men build a 30-foot boat with nothing more than a saw, an adze and a hammer. With his high school Spanish, a few words of Portuguese learnt from an aunt, and a sprinkling of Zulu, Gene found out where one could buy an adze and next morning did so.

We bought a bottle of Mateus Rosé and some Portuguese bread and sat on the beach to eat and drink, watching the ships way out on Rio Espirito Santo Bay. We waded in the ocean and I caught a tiny rusty-red sea horse. "Look, Gene, he puffs and blows like a real horse!" I called, lifting the tiny creature from the water, delighted with my find.

"He's suffocating: put him back," my ever-practical husband answered. We discovered that some of the peculiar oval things on the sea floor were beche de mer, sea cucumbers--and some were the result of inefficient sewage treatment.

We walked out a mile in knee deep water before it got deep enough to swim in, and found when we did swim that it was like being in a bath tub. The warm Indian Ocean a peculiar experience, soporific rather than stimulating.

After supper, we joined the residents of Lourenço Marques promenading up and down the broad avenues. Each night, whole families walked along the sidewalks from about 9 p.m. until they were "aired" enough, occasionally stopping at sidewalk cafes.

Pleasantly tired, we returned to the Aviz. The beds were comfortable and no cockroaches hid under them. We were abed by 10 p.m., planning an early start in the morning..

Sunday we set off up country to see the sights. Passing the bank of a big river, I recited chunks of the Just-So Stories, encouraged by my first sight of the "great grey-green greasy Limpopo all set round with fever trees". Having just seen real fever trees brought a whole new reality to the stories my father had read me years ago.

"I am the cat who walks alone, and all places are alike to me," I chanted to the jungle.

"You are the cat who's going to get a mouthful of thorn branches if you don't pull your head in," said Gene, steering to the side of the road to let an over-laden lorry roar past. A bunch of cheerful Africans waved from the back of the truck, one of them holding a hog-tied goat in her lap. The goat didn't appear to be enjoying the trip, but goats are pretty glum-looking at the best of times.

We drove a long time and eventually came to the town of Maniça. It was a very peculiar place. Broad avenues were laid out in a grid; grey stone public buildings stood appearing empty and hardly any people were visible. We took pictures, wondering what this semi-ghost town was doing here in the jungle. We stopped at a small Indian store and Gene bought me some headscarves. The proprietor was nervous and seemed quite keen for us not to stay and browse. It was a very sinister town, almost silent.

We returned to LM and found a place to have lunch that served the piri-piri prawns for which the town was famous. Almost any food came piri-piri style; that is, cooked with enough red pepper sauce to permanently cure any naso-pharyngeal problems the visitor might have. It was here that I discovered that water is not the correct drink with piri-piri food: beer was the usual accompaniment, but a milk-shake would do. Water simply re-ignited the fire.

We wandered around town, looking into shops and admiring the old buildings, and that night went to bed early. The next morning we discovered the car had been broken into and our camera stolen. Nothing else was touched. The camera had been hidden under the driver's seat, and several items of clothing had been left in plain view. They were still there, but the camera was gone. There was no overt sign of break-in: the door locks were still functional and there were no jimmy marks anywhere. A very professional job. Gene went to the police station and tried to report the theft. The Portuguese desk sergeant couldn't have been less helpful and Gene finally gave up.

Money was running out, so we went to a local market to see what we could buy reasonably. We bought a five pound tin of cashews for the equivalent of $1.20, and a huge linguiça. This Portuguese sausage brought Gene out in an attack of nostalgia. "My mother used to get these and slice them and fry them up for a special treat."

We scrounged up the requisite coins for the sausage and settled it comfortably on the back seat. I had my reservations about eating anything from an open-air market, but figured that cooking would kill any unwanted organisms.

"I understand the cashews are all wild," Gene said, threading his way through side streets in search of the main street "People just go out in the forest and harvest them, rather than have plantations. They could make four times the money from proper orchards."

"I suppose it's a case of not having the money or the know-how to set up plantations," I said. "Or maybe if you're making a modest living from wild harvesting, why take on the extra work involved in a more formal arrangement?"

I fell into a half doze, thinking about the cashew gatherers, and was jolted awake by Gene. "If you're going to be navigator on this rally, you have to pay attention. I asked if you wanted to go back the way we came, or try the other road?"

I consulted the map and decided it looked safe enough to take the southern route, which took us through the border post at Goba de la Frontiera. On the map it looked like a town, but in reality it was a concrete block building, a cracked and worn pole barrier, and three Portuguese soldiers looking bored to tears.

One of them came to investigate the car, in case we were illegally exporting something. I had a fleeting pang of guilt because I had said something to Gene about the money that might be interpreted as "making mock". I wondered how good the Portuguese secret police were, and whether they didn't have a secret snicker about the funny money once in a while themselves.

The Captain strolled out, thumbs tucked in the shiny Sam Browne belt around his ample waist. Flashing a gold tooth, he took his time inspecting our passports and practicing his English. He called me 'Madame' and was greasily gallant. Eventually, with obvious reluctance, he let us go on our way. It must have been an awful job, stuck out there miles from the nearest café with nothing but thorn bushes and goats and two sullen junior officers for company.

One the Swazi side of the border we had a bit of trouble about the linguiça.

"It is not permitted to bring raw meat from Mozambique," the guard told us.

"Ah, but this is not raw meat, it has been smoked and salted," I said.

"It looks raw to me," insisted the guard.

"That's the salt, it makes it red."

"It looks like a sausage," the guard persisted.

"But feel it, it's stiff, not like a sausage at all," I said, thumping the linguiça on the car door.

Eventually I convinced the guard to let me keep the linguiça. He would not be moved when it came to the apples, however. We had bought them in Swaziland for the trip and hadn't eaten them, so were bringing them back. That made them foreign apples, apparently. The guard would not give in. While Gene drummed his fingers on the roof of the car, I ate two of them, but couldn't manage the rest and had to consign them to the quarantine bin. It had no lid, and how it was supposed to keep alien fruit flies out of Swaziland I never did find out.

"It's the principle of the thing," I explained to Gene, my declaration interrupted with apple-flavoured hiccups. He said nothing, but started the car and headed out of town.

A few houses and a closed petrol station made up the rest of the settlement. The road began to descend, and soon we were back in the bush veldt.

Once we had passed the border, Gene said, "I've been thinking it over, and my guess is they took the camera because we'd been photographing Maniça."

"But there was nothing there!" I said, "Why bother? It isn't like it was a rocket range."

Gene thought it over for a while, then said, "I think Maniça is one of their failures, and they don't want it widely known. It had the look of a place that was going to be a district administrative center, remember those stone buildings? Maybe they had big plans, but the money or the will ran out. Or maybe we saw something that we didn't know was important, but someone viewing our pictures might realise what it was."

It was a spooky thought. We never did find out what secret the town in the jungle hid, but years later I ran across a reference to Maniça that made me think Gene's theory could have been right.

We went on our way, driving into the sunset. Home-going goats made the drive a series of adrenaline rushes. One minute you were barreling along on a clear road, at the next you had to slam on the brakes as ten or forty goats, chivvied along by a small boy with a stick, suddenly came out of the scrub. Occasionally a hump-backed cow, herding itself, wandered into the road. As often as not, it decided to walk up the middle of the road, deaf to blowing horns and entreaties. The temptation to drive up the beast's heels to encourage it to pick up speed had to be resisted: had we injured a cow, it would have cost us a lot in fines and been bad publicity for our organisation. This did not mean one couldn't yell selected epithets out of the window, and that relieved some of the frustration.

Finally we picked up the main road and an hour later were again in the high veldt, sitting on our own porch and telling the babysitter all about our trip. Her main concern was whether we had remembered her bottle of seawater. I rummaged in the bag and handed over a Listerine bottle I had filled from the Indian Ocean. She was more pleased with that than with the new headscarf; Swazis have a solid belief in the curative properties of ocean water.

"That was a very interesting experience, all of it," I said to Gene.

"Most amazing of all is that the Portuguese have been in Mozambique for over 400 years and have made so little impression," he said. "You can feel Africa crouching out there in the jungle, waiting for the visitors to go away. I wonder how long it will be?"

Not long, as it turned out. Guerilla warfare broke out, the Portuguese withdrew, civil war raged for several years and eventually Samora Machel established a black majority leftist government in Mozambique. Lourenço Marques was renamed Maputo; the men with the brief cases reported to new bosses; the ordinary people were still hungry and in some cases starving; and the great grey-green greasy Limpopo continued its sinuous trip to the sea. After several decades of upheaval relative calm settled over Mozambique, punctuated by floods and hurricanes so severe as to make one think Nature had declared war on the country.

None of this was foreseeable in 1971. We had enjoyed our visit to Mozambique, and were saving up to do it again. Our insurance replaced the camera, although reluctantly--we had no police theft report to give them, of course. On future visits to LM we made sure the replacement camera was never left unattended.

And we never went back to Maniça.
 
 

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