Xmas in Mozambique

And just like that, our much anticipated stint is Mozambique is well underway. We’ve been here for a week now – having travelled 2,600 kilometres from Cape Town to Vilankulos, gateway to the Bazaruto archipelago.

We arrived in Maputo last week to an ominous grey sky, and impossible humidity. A friend of ours from Cape Town, Mike, has joined us for the Christmas holidays – and never having visited Mozambique before there was nothing else for it but to take him on a walking tour of Maputo to get the ball rolling.

Queue two days of trekking around the city – from sipping coffees at the urban market, getting locked into the main cathedral on Independence Square (we got out through an open side door), zooming through traffic on death defying tuk-tuks, strolling along the seafront promenade, to partying into the night to Maputo’s up-and-coming jazz-esque musicians… we thoroughly introduced him to life in Mozambique.

But that was only a short interlude – our main destination? The beach.  So on Thursday we picked up a hire car, loaded it with our copious amounts of luggage, and set off to drive the 500km to Tofo beach – a small laid-back village nestled at the start of a seemingly endless pristine white beach with the waves of the Indian ocean lapping at the shores.

Our arrival was less than dignified – turning onto the road housing our accommodation, our poor VW Polo promptly sank into the deep sand, and gave up.  We were well and truly stuck, wheels spinning, unable to make the last 100 metres of our journey.  Before we knew it, the whole of Tofo was surrounding us – digging at the sand beneath our wheels with their hands, finding logs and stones to put before and under the wheels, letting the air out of our tyres – and with 20 minutes of community effort, creativity, and heaving – Tofo’s population had our car out of the sand, and we drove round the back way to our destination.  What an entrance.

We checked into a small hostel there, and spent two days doing absolutely nothing.  We walked on the beach, swam in the warm ocean, lazed around on the sand, and ate seafood in the evening (including the best crab curry I have ever tasted).  Now the holidays were really underway.

Tofo, however, was just a break in our drive… we needed to get all the way up the coast to Vilankulos in time for Christmas. So on the 23rd, we loaded up our car again, and finished the 320km left of our drive… landing at Baobab Beach backpackers resort, and checked into our waterfront chalet. Holiday-mode on (although festive feelings largely lacking in the 30C sandy resort).

Christmas eve daytime we did nothing – we spent the day wandering on the beach, pottering around the small quintessentially African town of Vilankulos, sipped fresh coffees at a newly opened beachfront hotel, and lounged by our hostel pool.  But in the evening our accommodation had organised a Christmas party – and we were eager to take part.

The evening started with a show by the town’s local choir – think gospel music, dancing, and funky takes on Christmas carols.  Following which, PINTS of sangria were the included tipple – with heaving tables of samosas, pizzas, and canapes.  We drank and gobbled with the other 50 or so people taking part – making numerous new friends.  Kitchen melt-down ensued, and our Xmas dinner of barbecued fish, dry turkey, and a sauce alleged to be gravy (it wasn’t) arrived at 10 o’clock.  We barely had the energy left to polish off our Xmas dinner pudding of chocolate mousse before collapsing in bed for the night – we had an early Christmas Day start.

In an attempt at Christmas cheer – we had decided to book onto a day trip to the Bazaruto archipelago, with our small motorboat setting off at 8am.  We clambered aboard with a French family of four – and the seven of us set off for our Christmas Day treat.

After a 50km boat ride, we were deposited on Bazaruto island – a sand dune in the middle of the ocean.  We clambered to the top of the dune to take in the incredible views of the sea dotted with islands as far as the eye can see – and to take our Xmas selfies, of course.

From there, we were loaded into another boat – and holding on for dear life we bounced and crashed over the rolling waves into the sea to the two mile reef – also known as “the aquarium”, where we were to spend a couple of hours snorkelling.

We were lucky – we swam around among more astonishingly colourful fish than I could ever describe. The range of corals was stunning.  The sun shone down illuminating the seascape below us.  From one outcrop of coral, a huge patterned barracuda peered out at us (we took a quick look and moved along – scary looking thing).

Then our boat skipper was yelling for us to hurry back to the boat immediately – we all raced through the water to see what was up.  A turtle had come to say hello – so we spent the next minutes swimming alongside the graceful turtle, swirling around among the corals (we didn’t stand a chance at keeping up).

Snorkelling over, we were served up a fish barbecue on the nearest beach, before loading back into the boat to start the trip back to Vilankulos.

Almost immediately – shrieks of excitement… an elusive dugong was playing around in the water.  He came very close to our small boat, so we got amazing views of this near-extinct creature.  The animals had clearly come out in force to make our Christmas Day extra special.

There was time to stop off on a different tropical island for one last hour of swimming, before making the last hop back to mainland.

But it wasn’t over – on route to shore, we found ourselves surrounded … by a pod of dolphins who had come to play.  They frolicked around, swimming under our boats, jumping out of the water either side of us, showing off the baby in their group.  We swiveled in our seats, laughing, watching their antics and hardly able to believe our luck.

We exchanged a few small gifts back at the hostel, over beers and pizza, and sunburn.  It might not have been traditional, it might not have been cold and white – but it was a totally magically Christmas in its own way.





Leaving Swaziland, our next “home” has been Maputo for the past four days – and in contrast to the Swazi experience, I love it here.

We arrived Thursday evening, having hired a man with a car in Swaziland to drive us the 2-3 hour trip to Maputo. It quickly became clear he had never left the country before, and although he proudly waved around his pristine passport in the car, as we approached the border he got nervous and silently tiptoed towards the immigration desk hiding behind us.

The border guard was kind, sensing his nervousness, and we saw him look around quickly to check if his colleagues were watching, and then slide our mate’s passport back to him with a pen – he hadn’t even signed it yet.

By the time we made it through the border the man was truly elated, and it was confirmed – we were friends for life, and he chatted continuously all the way to Maputo.

To our surprise, Maputo turns out to be a huge, bustling city – with an infuriatingly complicated one-way system. It took us a good hour of driving round and round the city being thwarted by no-entry signs before we finally made it to our hotel.

Let’s be frank, our hotel is a hovel. Apart from the bed – which thankfully is clean -, the main feature of the room is a glass shower cubicle, which bizarrely also houses the toilet. Never mind, this was supposed to be a money-saving solution anyway, so we checked in, and promptly went out.

We were looking forward to catching the tapas and live music of Maputo, so we headed straight to a recommended venue – Cafe Dolce Vita. Unfortunately, it has succumbed to the cultural destruction that accompanies the wish to be “modern”, or “Western”.

While we went there for a cosy, atmospheric tapas bar with live local music, what we found was a soulless white fast-food joint, complete with neon lights, and plastic tables and chairs, with the talented local band rehashing Rihanna songs and crooning out Bob Marley. Such a shame.

The next day we set out for our first big challenge – setting ourselves up in Mozambique without speaking any Portuguese. We needed SIM cards, and adaptor plugs. No amount of gesticulation, miming, and drawing pictures could get the girl behind hotel reception to understand we were asking where to find an electronics shop, so we were sat outside our room studying a map to locate any “shopping district” (there isn’t one), when a young guy stepped out of the room next door for a cigarette.

Saying hi, it turned out he and his girlfriend  lived in Johannesburg, but he was originally Mozambican. Leaping on the information, we picked his brains on which way to set out on our errands and then we were off.

Following his instructions, before long we had found a little shop selling cables and plugs. Walking in, shouting a big “bom dia”, Tom turned to me – how on earth are we going to explain an adaptor plug?

I was one step ahead – I’d brought my charger, and whipping it out of my bag I proffered it to the sales lady. Thankfully, she was bright, and replied something which sounded much like “adaptor”, and we nodded frantically. Soon she was back with exactly the plug we needed. We managed to ask for another one, get to the bottom of the price, and thank her profusely, before exiting, one errand down, feeling very pleased with ourselves.

Out on the street, we bumped straight into our friends from the hotel. Any idea where we could find a mobile provider? No, but they were also looking for the same thing. We set off in opposite directions on the hunt for SIM cards.

We quickly found one, and walked in daunted at the prospect of buying and registering a phone line in Portuguese.

A lady gestured at us to approach her desk. The conversation went like this. “Bom dia. SIM card. Obrigado.” [SMILE HOPEFULLY]. She got it, and helpfully, asked for our documents rather than getting us to fill out the incomprehensible forms. Within minutes, we had gestured, drawn and gobbledygooked our way to two SIM cards loaded with data. Excellent.

Just then, our friends walked in grinning that we had beaten them to it. They smiled at the guy at the next counter, and – assuming we must have communicated in English – set about explaining in quick English what they wanted. “Get to the back of the queue,” the salesman snapped (there wasn’t one). Whispering at them to try in Portuguese, we left to roam the streets of Maputo, feeling altogether accomplished and organised.

We opted for an early night, as we had a full day of sightseeing planning for the next day.

In the morning, we hit the streets walking round the main sights of the town, visited the central craft market, and went along to an art gallery where they use old weapons from the civil war to create really cool sculptures.

Maputo is a funny experience. It’s a really vibrant and built-up city, and the architecture is very, very reminiscent of Europe (for obvious reasons). My initial instinct has been “It’s just like Havana”. There’s a Mediterranean lilt to the place.

There are cafes and little restaurants littering the streets, always full to the seams with people luxuriating over long lunches, pouring out little carafes of red wine at all hours, or sipping shots of espresso.

Worn out from the morning’s walking, we took the passenger ferry across the sea inlet which divides Maputo, to the “Manhattan of Maputo”, Catembe, and went for a lunch of prawns on the beach, with an incredible view of Maputo’s skyline across the water.

An excruciatingly slow return ferry crossing later, it was time to brave our freezing showers (our hotel has no hot water), and rush off to catch the football in a pizza and sports bar, surrounded by every single expat living in Maputo, by the looks of it.

The past few days have been interesting – while we have pottered and wandered and seen the “sights”, we haven’t really “done” anything – there doesn’t seem to be anything to do, specifically, in Maputo. The museums we tried to visit were all closed, the cathedral padlocked shut, many of the guide-book recommended sights closed for renovation, or not.

Yet we both feel like we’ve had such a nice time, and we both love Maputo. There’s just something in the air.

For my part, I have observed one thing which is very different from other African countries. Black and white people live totally together, equal, and importantly, they seem to share the same culture.

Sitting in small backstreet cafes at lunch time, for example, we were surrounded by tables of mixed ethnicity looking relaxed, wearing the same clothes, sharing the same foods, sipping wine (yep, at lunch time!), chattering away in Portuguese.

This may not sound like much, but there’s an underlying contentment and equality in the air, which is very unusual in Africa.

In other African countries we often find “local” cafes/bars, and “expat” venues – the former serving completely different dishes and drinks to the latter. And in many African countries you will hear a myriad of languages, with everyone forced to speak in one “official” language (generally English) – causing so much to be lost in translation. The attitudes and behaviour of the various groups are also wildly differing, sometimes to much hilarity, sometimes to grave frustration.

Here, none of that. Everyone seems to be enjoying the same culture, the same lifestyle, the same habits. And everyone is stubbornly committed to their shared language – Portuguese. It’s no-one’s second language, so no-one is the linguistic underdog. And NO, they definitely do not speak English, not even a word, even when secretly, they do. (If you’ve ever tried to speak English in France, you’ll understand what I mean).

Now, maybe this is all because Mozambique was colonised for longer, maybe everyone has been trampled into homogeneity. I don’t know. But what I will say, is that right now, for me, Maputo has been a lovely, refreshing example of people getting along.