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On the move in Mozambique

My transportation that day did not move down the road; it undulated, as if its whole frame felt and moved with every little rock we rolled over. The door, more a crumpled piece of metal on rails than anything else, screeched with almost human dissonance every time it was opened, which was often. The roads in Mozambique are surrounded by little clusters of huts, made of thatch and dirt but actually very sturdy and warm. As this minibus rattled its way down the dirt road that connected Tofo, the beach town where I had spent the last few days, and Inhambane, the larger town that acted as the capital of the province of the same name, it stopped constantly. Every 50 meters or so, some people would get off and some would get on, yet the car would always be filled to capacity. People without seats would stand or half crouch if they didn’t want to whack their head on the car’s stained aluminum shell. Like a clown car, the bus thundered its way down the dirt road, heading away from the coast and towards something new.

Tofo was a beach town without compare, with white sand, warm blue water and beautiful weather. And about three days after I got there, it got old. Looking for excitement in the town area was practically useless, as the vendors that lorded over the beachfront from their sheet-metal marketplace practically stalked you through the streets, demanding that you buy their wares. Even our hostel’s beach access was closely guarded by a troop of 12-year-old kids that pressed you to exchange either your cash or the clothes off your back for one of their bracelets. They would always give you their names (Johnny Cash, Johnny Tomato, Big Tomato, Fernando) and then ask you if you remembered them later on. If you didn’t, they’d guilt trip you into a sale.

The one thing that did intrigue me were the non-sheet metal houses in Tofo. When Mozambicans build houses, at least where I was, they’re usually made of thatch, maybe with a sheet metal roof. In almost defiance of the local housing method, Tofo’s backstreets, or back sand gullies as there was little actual pavement in the town, were filled with blocky concrete houses, and the abundance of rust on their metal gates and fences attested to their age. Appearing stranded and misplaced, these dwellings were the legacy of the Portuguese, who clung to the colony until the Carnation Revolution unseated their dictator and led to Mozambique’s independence. The houses were the colonist’s orphans, the last of their kind in a country that had no interest in their stark and blocky architecture. I, on the other hand, did, and this interest was the mission as I boarded, squeezed really, into a motorized aluminum can and trundled towards Inhambane.

“Where are you from?”
The conversations usually start like this. Of the mass of people in front of me, either none of them spoke English or, up till this point, none of them cared to talk to me.
“The United States.”
A spat of murmurs echoed in the cab when he relayed this in Portuguese to his friends.
“What city?”
“San Francisco”
“San Francisco! Do you know 50 Cent?”
“Not personally, but I’ve seen him on TV.”
“Does he have a lot of money?”
For a second I thought he asked if I had a lot of money, always an awkward topic in one of the least developed countries in the world.
“Oh man… tons, I’m sure. Yes, he has lots of money.”
“What does he drive?”
“Oh, he doesn’t drive. Someone drives for him.”
His laugh was lively, and showed his uneven white teeth as he threw his head back in hilarity.

We talked about 50 Cent’s car (“probably a Cadillac”) where Jean Claude Van Damme lived (“Belgium” “Really? Wow. I love Jean Claude Van Damme”) and about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s still inexplicable sojourn into politics.
“Who do you think would win in a fight, Van Damme or Schwarzenegger?”
“Uhh… I think Arnold.”
“Really? Nah. Van Damme is the best. I like Van Damme. He’s my favorite.”
The Mozambican jungle, never thick and hot, but mostly flat and even, started to give way to more shacks, huts and other signs of development.
“Are we getting to Inhambane?” I asked my friend.
The spaced out shacks became a market lined with deep gutters. The stands, all sheet metal and open air, were adorned with tires, corn, fruit, and cheap plastic toys whose color stood out against the metal’s utilitarian gray.
“Is this where I get out?”
“No, there’s a bus station further.”

Past the market, the people started thinning out, while the street became wider. No longer a dirt road, the houses started to revert, almost uniformly, to the concrete, blocky architecture of the Tofo vacation homes. We snaked through Inhambane, down a grand, tree-lined avenue, until we turned into a bus station. Like most in Africa, it was lined with waiting kombis and their loitering drivers, and surrounded by street vendors.

Both my wallet and my stomach were empty, so I asked my friend where an ATM and a restaurant were.

“Yes, there’s an ATM on that other street. I’ll show you.”

And that’s how I met Armando. As we left the bus depot, him walking in a loping sort of stride, he told me that he studied English in high school and got top marks. His voice careened off desolate concrete as he told me this. Past the bus station, the streets of Inhambane became totally empty. No businesses were open, few cars drove past and pedestrians were a rarity. It was Mozambique Women’s Day, Armando told me, a national holiday, hence the many closed businesses. But Inhambane made a good ghost town. Towering, painted concrete, tree-lined streets and mandatory rust on everything metal; it seemed inexplicable. These building were indicative of not only another country, but another lifestyle, foreign and forgotten. The empty streets seemed to fit, as if time had stopped, people had disappeared and the buildings were all that were left.

As we wandered the town, I learned more about Armando. His family lived in Maputo, but he was working up here, living with his sister in a tin-roofed house in between Tofo and Barra. His father was died in 1992, and he vaguely alluded that it was because of the then-concluding civil war. He was also only two years older than me, a fact we recognized with enthusiasm. He now spent his days selling prawns in Tofo and Barra, another local beach town, and he was in Inhambane to buy more stock. I didn’t have the chance to tell him much about myself before he formed an opinion about me. “You’re a good person, Chris,” he said, as we clopped past a trash-strewn alley. I was puzzled; we had just met, and yet here he was flattering me. I belted out some kind of haphazard response.

“You know most people in the United States don’t know anything about Mozambique. They wouldn’t think about coming here. But I’m here and I’m happy to be here.” I said something like that. As a response to a genuine incidence of cultural awkwardness, it seemed like the best I could muster at the time.

We carried on. A brand new pier jutted out into the vast Inhambane Bay, which cut into the mainland and created the peninsula that Inhambane and Tofo were on. The silhouette of Maxixe, the province’s largest city, reflected in the afternoon light across the bay, and we saw a number of water taxis carrying tourists and locals across the lagoon. At the end of the pier a group of fishermen cast fishing wire with lines of hooks into the water and pulled up little, bloody fish. These were subsistence fishermen, not employed in the traditional sense, but making their food and living on the pier, Armando told me. Wandering back through the streets, we came to the Mercado Central. In need of prawns, Armando headed to the smelliest booth of them all, where he was told to come back later. The Mercado Central was a lively marketplace filled with vendors selling carvings, paintings, fruits and vegetables, knick-knacks and lots of cashews. Mozambique is one of the world’s largest producers of cashews, and matapa, a type of cashew and spinach stew that is usually served with rice and shrimp, is a local specialty. But I wasn’t there to buy, so we hit the streets again.

Our voices carried unnaturally far for what should have been a bustling neighborhood. As we headed toward the waterfront, we were the creator of concrete echoes, cold sound slamming from bare wall to empty asphalt to neglected porch.

Arrayed on the waterfront was a line of houses, windows dirty, lights off, empty shells that looked stately and ignored.

Our conversation was haphazard, the product of two people trying to find a common ground when 11,000 miles had previously separated their lives. It was inexplicable, and we both knew it, but it also offered us freedom. When would we see each other again? Would this even matter? Doubtful, so each of us got it all out, each and every question, him quizzing me about America, me about the life and times of Mozambique. This openness, because it was all so implausible, propelled our conversation down this deserted avenue.

We reached the waterfront and, suddenly tired, stopped next to the lagoon, crouching down with eyes squinted to the sunset, imitating the buildings in our sudden silence.

What if I hadn’t met Armando? The plan was to do this alone, and I could have excused myself from Armando if I had wanted to. Truth is, there were times when I tried. But sitting at that lagoon, I no longer felt obligated to try and fill with vapid conversation the 11,000-mile void that separated our lives up till this point, as people often do with new acquaintances. And on this day Inhambane was quiet and lonely. With Armando, my time in the town held life and conversation where I would have only experienced solitude and silence.

We gobbled a bag of cashews as Armando, prawnless, unfortunately, and I rocked back down the road to Tofo in another, slightly less dilapidated kombi. On the way back, Armando and I looked over the songs he had stored on his cell phone, him showing me his favorites and me showing feigned familiarity. He was especially fond of R. Kelly songs, and he sang me one of his favorites, while I, in turn, subjected him to an abysmal karaoke of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” And then we were at a fork, one way leading to Barra and another to Tofo.

“I have to get off here, Chris.”

“Ok, where will you be tomorrow?”

“Barra Road in Barra,” he replied.

We shook hands and said our goodbyes as he left the van. I spread out on my newly spacious bench and opened the window, when Armando appeared outside for one last handshake.

“Chris, it has been a good day.”

“Yes it has Armando, I’m glad we met. Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow. Good luck with everything.”

Sometimes “have a nice life” is the most truthful thing you can say to someone, and Armando would have qualified, but it seemed wrong. I don’t meet people just to shut them out completely when the odds of meeting again seem too great. Regardless, I never made it to Barra, and didn’t see Armando again while I was in Tofo. But I think I figured out what was behind his praise. I don’t think he was being flattering to me. I think he was excited, that a conversation between two very different people had turned into a connection and an adventure. That was what drove his flattery, but only he was intuitive enough to come right out and say it.

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