Monday, April 14, 2014

Getting to Mozambique

Ok this East African adventure is not over yet folks. I have more stories.
Getting to Vamizi Island, Northern Mozmabique was the most topsy turvy journey ever. There is no photo evidence (bloody GoPro ran out of battery), so you must believe my words, although myself I'm not sure I believe it.
Getting to Nairobi everything was fine, finally escaped the unrelenting heat of March on the coast. Get to the airport on Sunday after staying one night with friends, get a the usual funny look at my passport with back to back tourist visas for the past 3 years (still no research visa from immigration), and go through to the departure lounge. The screen is still predicting our 3:45 departure to Pemba and Nampula, everything looks great. At around 3:15 all of us in the waiting lounge are told to go back out and wait for further instructions. The plane never left Maputo. No explanation why, just no plane. No plane until Tuesday in fact. Ok so a hotel, and planning what on earth I'm going to do in the mean time and also because of careful timing with a boat from the mainland to Vamizi Island, how am I going to make the onward journey. Luckily I meet another guy called Herb, also trying to get to Vamizi because he works at the dive centre there (what are the chances), who is actually from Watamu (no way!). Great, I can figure this one out and I don't need to do it alone.
The hotel we are taken to is the Nairobi Safari Club, in the centre of Nairobi. 5* luxury for two nights at the expense of the airline. I crashed onto my super-king sized bed and thought about how jammy life is sometimes, and decided to call Isobel, the partner in Mozambique to explain I would be a couple of days late. News from Mozambique was that a cyclone or something had flooded massive areas on the route from Pemba, the airport town, to Mocimboa, the harbour town where I was supposed to get the boat. The water had receded somewhat, but a bridge on the route had been taken out! Not only would that make the journey difficult, but the island was now struggling to get petrol and the conservation team were on the bottom of the waiting list for it after the lodge and its expensive paying guests. Even if I could manage to get there I would have no petrol to do any fieldwork.
OK. Two more days left on my transit visa I had been issued because of the cancelled flight. Either take a futile flight to Mozambique or have to rearrange everything and come back to the UK early. Obviously come home, but when I started called Kenya Airways and planning with Mum and Dad about getting my room ready and stuff, I couldn't bear the thought of coming back to England so soon. I had mentally prepared for in a month's time. Its too early! Also I had been trying to get to Vamizi for over a year, I had to see the place. 
I spoke to Rob the South African lodge manager on the island, who said in a classic African manner, "look man, just get here and we'll make a plan". "Making a plan" a great African euphemism for whinging it, has honestly worked for me so far in life, why should now be any different. I can get there, there's always a way, so off to Mozambique again.
Arriving in Pemba I was surprised how nice it all looked. The town was clean and not terribly ugly or impoverished. The people were super friendly and didn't make a big deal about me being a whitey, like I've experienced everywhere in Kenya. In many ways it was a cross between Brazil and Kenya. A latin Africa or and African latino place. I was enjoying myself and glad about the decision to go for it.
In the morning I was to get a bus at 5am, which would get me to Mocimboa by 1pm, with a river crossing at the broken bridge, but it was all organised and I would be able to travel with one ticket. What an awesome country! The bus filled pretty quickly as well, which is always a relief, because in Africa a bus never leaves until every seat is filled. However we were still driving in circles around town, and more people getting on, and then the conductor starts climbing over the chairs and pushing people to the back, so that more people can get on. Eventually at 7am when the bus is packed like a sardines can we leave. The amount of people and luggage on that bus gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "Gari imejah!" (Swahili: the car is full). Thank goodness I got a seat.
As we drove north I tried to get a feel for this nation. We passed small villages of mud walls and thatch roofs, just like in Kenya, women pounding maize in the morning, kids going to school etc. However it was really noticeable the lack of any other kinds of buildings in the villages, or even the fact that almost every house was the same size and arranged in neat rows. A legacy of Mozambique's communist past I suppose or maybe just the fact that there is not as much inequality here as in Kenya. Everyone lives somehow the same. Interesting as well was the amount of uninhabited space. We would drive for long distances and see only bush. It is quite wet and lush as well, so not uninhabitable land, it just appears there are not enough people to fill the space. I began wondering what had happened here during the civil war, when this area was hit the worst in the whole country. 
Finally at 11am we reached the fabled river. We had passed through a large stretch of lowland which was very boggy, but the river itself was quite a narrow one, like many which we had passed. That particular bridge had just been unlucky it seemed. Having a seat near the back of the bus I was one of the last to get off. When I got down, complete pandaemonium ensued. Instantly 50 or so guys from the bush surrounded me demanding to carry my bag. I was trying to be cool and hold off until Herb managed to get his stuff off the bus and we could make a plan of action. He had this ridiculously huge box of PADI course books all nicely wrapped and bound for the clients on the island, which definitely needed carrying, but how to now negotiate who would carry the bags without causing a riot. To carry the stuff ourselves would have brought fury at our selfishness, especially as I was the only Mzungu on the bus. However, deciding who would win our business would also be tricky. I tried to whisper to an old man nearest to me who had approached me early on, and silence ensued throughout my crowd and seemed to pull even more people in. Somehow we escaped this insane situation with my little old man helping me and another guy helping Herb, for the pre-arranged price of around £1 each. Turns out the water was low enough that we actually were supposed to walk across the river. I rolled up my trousers and put my best foot forward into the black mud trying not to think about bilharzia in the water or the fact that my laptop with my PhD thesis on it, my passport and all my money, were perched on this little old man's head. Instead I looked at the dramatic beauty of this lowland area, punctuated by symmetrical oasis palms. It was actually quite a high moment, and I felt quite empowered by the crazy life I lead. 
By this point, because taking forever to extract ourselves from the first bus, we definitely did not get a seat on the second bus. In fact we were perched on the stairs near the door. However, at least we won't have to wait forever for them to sort everyone out right? Wrong. For some inexplicable reason we sat there in our sardine bus in the baking midday heat for nearly an hour. The driver was no where to be seen. Because of the heat and stress a woman on the bus started to have an epileptic fit. Herb and I, with our rescue diver, emergency first response training (oh yeah PADI), tried to do what we could, which was very little other than get her off the bus and hold her in the recovery position until the fitting stopped. It was a helpless situation, in the middle of flooded valley in one of the poorest countries on earth. No one else on the bus seemed to even notice. During this time the driver arrived and once the woman was stable, we tried to get back on the bus, but had to argue with the driver for 15 minutes, because "Gari imejah" he said. Ok not enjoying this anymore.
2 hours later (with a police stop who searched several passengers on board trying to extort bribes and checking my passport and travel documents with fine tooth comb for the same reason) we arrive in Mocimboa. There is a friendly local guy Herb knows who will help us organise a dhow to get to the island. I just crashed out on the sofa on his porch. 
I was half carried to the beach where the traditional East African sail boat is waiting to take us to the island. "Just two hours, you'll be there by dinner", I'm told. We get on the boat at 7pm, and then sit and sit, until after an hour I ask one of the guys what's the hold-up. Captain's not here. Where is he? At home. Why is he at home? He's at home until he's ready to go. Ayayayiiiiiii. Time in Mozambique is more non-existent than Kenya. In the end I just crashed asleep on the floor of the boat on the hard concrete blocks they were using for ballast. 
I came around some time later to the sound of one guy singing a haunting local folk tune. I opened my eyes to see the sail in full billow in the moonlight and the dramatic southern stars. As I propped myself up land was far in the distance and phosphorescence streaming in the wake of the boat. It was a quintessential moment that cannot be conveyed, only experienced, and one which I hope will stay with me for the rest of my life. Here I was in the middle of Indian Ocean in a traditional sailing boat, which has ferried people up and down this coast like this for hundreds of years. Absolutely magical. I went back to sleep dreaming of the nice dinner and bed awaiting for me. 
What must have been some hours later I woke up to find the moon had set and the boat was in darkness. Herb had been sleeping next to me but now wasn't there. I stumbled to the back of the boat to see what was going on. One guy shouted sharply, "Where are you going!? Lie down! We're working back here." Indeed they were tacking and changing the sail required some moving about, but why was he so rude and where was Herb. Were these guys just going to take me to a desert island somewhere and rob me? Oh man, why didn't I just go home!?
Turns out Herb was throwing up over the back of the boat and in reality the journey was going to take all night, which everyone except us had known all along. Just as the first glimmer of dawn appeared, the shape of the island came into focus. The captain pointed and smiled. We rounded the corner of the island heading along the northern coastline to get to the lodge. And then we stopped. Sail was furled, anchor dropped. Guys lay down on the decks. When I asked what was happening, the irritated captain explained in his most condescending tone, "This channel is shallow and there might be biiiiig rocks, that we don't want to hit and right now we can't seem them, so we have to wait until sunrise (stupid Mzungu)" One last sleep on the cement for me then. 
We arrived at about 7am in the morning, after however long travelling that had been. Since stepping foot onto the pristine white sands of this beach, I have been enjoying this lost paradise immensely, which made all the journey worth it.  I don't know if this is the same for other people, but a significant portion of travelling in my life seems to go like this. Immense good luck and terrible luck intertwined and balancing each other out, however in the end I always seem to land on my feet. I swear it is of none of my own doing, nor planning or anything else. I always end up with some crazy story and yet again there is a happy ending. But that's for another story.
Speak soon!

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