Sunday Morning ~ Blantyre
Ukayenda pa njira usamagulula mano, udzasowa chodyera nyama ~ If you go somewhere, do not take out your teeth, you will not be able to eat meat. ~ Chewa Proverb
April 15, 2018
Ok, where were we? I believe we had just gotten to Chocas and settled into our seaside bungalow just behind the dune dotted with coconut palms. The pristine beach was a twenty foot walk over the dune. The water was shallow, warm, and salty. I know it was the ocean, but it seemed salty even for the ocean. I was drawn to it and was swimming at dawn. That’s remarkable for me. Facing India, the sun rises out of the water and was incredibly dramatic with the clouds changing by the minute. I sat there each morning watching it come through the clouds. When we arrived at this lodge several local men were trying to get us to agree to a boat trip to an island where the snorkeling was supposed to be great. We told them we couldn’t do anything until we found some gasoline for our car. One of them, named John, assured us he knew where to find some, only two kilometers away. Given how remote we were that seemed doubtful, but there were lots of motorcycles around and some of the boats had outboard motors, so we knew they must have been getting gas somewhere. We spent the first afternoon relaxing in the hammock, and the evening dining on the most exquisite prawns I have ever ingested. Both of us were groaning in delight through the entire meal. I didn’t want it to end. These shrimp are huge, about the size of a small Maine lobster, and grilled with garlic it was so fantastic. And they had Portuguese Vino Verde and excellent Mozambican beer! We nearly didn’t care about the gas anymore! The restaurant was very basic and we had our doubts when we realized it was the only place to eat, but whoa, it was fantastic. And not expensive. Tuesday morning, after our sunrise swim, John showed up at our bungalow wanting us to confirm the boat trip. He offered to accompany George to the village to get gas. George went off with John to find petrol while I sat in the hammock reading. The plan was to go to breakfast when they returned and then go out in John’s friend’s boat (a little unclear on those details) for a ride and a snorkel. I figured they’d be gone a half hour at the most. Turns out I got quite a bit of reading done. Every time I heard a vehicle I thought, “Ah. There they are.” and then the sound slowly disappeared into the distance. I was getting nervous. I started thinking of terrible scenarios. What if they kidnapped him? What if they ran out of gas and couldn’t find any more? Maybe they were stuck in the mud and waiting for someone to dig them out? We didn’t get SIM cards for our phones so couldn’t be in touch (won’t do that again; refer to above proverb) and my imagination was running away with me. Two hours had passed. Even with all the imagined scenarios (aside from the kidnapping) he should have been back by then. I should have gone with him! I should have known better than to let hm go off by himself! Then I thought, knowing George, he’s probably in some village with a family having a meal and yukking it up. I was trying to suppress my growing panic. Another half hour went by and finally the car pulled in with George not looking as happy as I hoped. Which, made me think he was not sporting a full tank of gas, but at least he was alive. I asked, “What happened?!” He said, “Well I learned a lot about the local economy here. I’ll tell you about it at breakfast.” So we walked over to the restaurant part of the beach while he told me the story of driving around stopping at local houses where they sell petrol by the Fanta bottle. Turns out when there is a delivery at the gas station in Mouserril, enterprising villagers go buy a bunch of it and fill up small plastic bottles then sell them at a little profit when the station runs out. George drove around buying a liter here, a liter there until he had sixteen liters in the tank and figured that would be enough to get us to the main road, sixty kilometers away. He looked exhausted. I asked, “You are sure it is gasoline?” He said the car was running ok, so he assumed so. He said, “You know all those tables we pass with bottles full of what we thought was cooking oil? It’s all gasoline or diesel.” Who knew? All that anxiety for nothing.
The guys with the boat were sitting in front of the restaurant waiting for us to finish our shrimp omelet to make their money for the week, taking us out in the baking sun to snorkel around while they sit and watch. It was a little awkward. For our $70 they also offered free snorkeling gear and a fresh coconut which John said he’d open for us as part of the deal. It was a bit of a fly-by-night operation, but he did find the petrol as promised in a round about way, so we figured he’d saved us a bunch of money not having to take a bigger boat out of there to find gas. We waded out to the heavy-looking, old-looking, wooden boat, which did not have any life preservers among the fetid water and trash lying at the bottom. I mumbled, “No life jackets.” to which George replied, “It’s a wooden boat. If it capsizes, it will float.” Why did I not find that reassuring? And then I started thinking, why would anyone make a boat out of a material that doesn’t float? Like I’m supposed to appreciate it is wood and wood floats? But once we got going I felt like the boat was sturdy and we were never out of sight of land. It felt ok and they seemed to know what they were doing. The sun was baking hot, so hot I even put on sunscreen. When we got out to a coral reef they stopped the boat and George and I jumped in with the snorkel gear they’d given us. I think I mentioned before I don’t like putting that mouthpiece in with someone else’s teethmarks in it, but it was so hot I let it slide. I could only snorkel for so long before I needed to look up and make sure they hadn’t sailed away. George seemed right at home and was enthralled with the underwater scenery. A half hour with my face in the water was about as much as I could take. And I felt awkward with them in the boat, baking in the sun waiting for us. I swam around for awhile until George was satisfied that he’d seen all he wanted and then we paddled back to the boat. Trying to get back in the boat was ridiculous! Here’s George, 77 years old, recovering from pneumonia, grabs the side and hauls himself out of the water and into the boat in one swift motion. I thought, ok, that looks easy. Hah! I could not even get my abdomen above the water. Two of them had to grab my arms and haul me into the boat. It was not graceful and I did not like it. I felt like a dog. We weren’t that far from the Island of Seven Trees (obviously named a while ago before the other two hundred grew) and I almost said I’d just swim to shore, but I managed to compose myself and we headed to the island. They are supposedly building a new hotel on this island, and something resembling a building site was there but it sure looks like construction has come to a standstill. A few guys were sitting around the piles of materials under one of the seven (maybe) original trees, and I could see it could be an incredibly beautiful spot when it’s finished, but not sure where that stands. We walked along the beach there for awhile watching the tide come in then went back to the boat to head back to our place. On the boat ride back John opened a coconut for each of us with a stone and we had a nice drink. The outing was very basic but had a certain charm. John told us there was a five star resort about three kilometers from our lodge and later that afternoon we thought we’d walk along the beach to find it and maybe have a drink there. We walked along with thousands of sand crabs running all over the place, for over an hour but never came to the resort. It turns out it was a little further than three kilometers, probably more like three miles. It was starting to get dark so we turned around. We’d walked by some groups of fishermen, not exactly friendly, and were a little uncomfortable going by again in the dusk, so we went up to the road and started walking back that way. We came to a sign for Namahamande Lodge which was not the name of our lodge. We thought there was only one place to stay in Chocas and we were staying at it (the five star place doesn’t count). Curious, I wanted to check the place out and see about having a beer there.
What a cute funky place! It’s brand new though looks like it’s been there for ages, built into the landscape, an incredibly simple structure that looks like it could have been the set for a Gilligan’s Island episode. It was empty except for a couple of staff who were eager to accommodate us. We each ordered a beer and took a seat in the thatched dining area that had woven bamboo beds lining the waist-high bamboo walls. I wondered if that’s where people slept? If so, it was definitely a backpackers, young-crowd type of place. We drank our beer while watching the sunset on one side with the moon rising on the other. We weren’t too far from our lodge but weren’t familiar with the road so decided we’d go back down to the beach and walk back that way. It seemed safer in the dark. As we were leaving, the owner of the place came around a corner with a huge dog and we started chatting. He’s an American from North Carolina, looks exactly like my friend Steve, also from North Carolina, and they have the same last name. I must find out if they are related, though I’d have thought Steve would have told me if he had a cousin living so close to us. Anyway, his name is Kent Powell and has an interesting story: he went to Mozambique for a six month project building an orphanage and is still there fifteen years later. Now owning a piece of this incredible coast with his Brazilian wife, the local government required him to do something with it that involved tourism. So he started this lodge. I think he said they had their first reservation in December so quickly had to make a restaurant so the guests would have somewhere to eat. I was thinking what irony that the government was requiring him to do something about tourism when it seemed to me the major problem with getting tourists there was the road! Anyway, fun chat with interesting characters. I love that part of traveling.
We walked back to our bungalow and got dressed to go to supper and by that I mean we took our bathing suits off. I wanted to try the lobster but it was no where near as good as the prawns. It was huge, so there was plenty of meat, but it was a bit tough and dry and I was sorry I didn’t get the prawns again. George had squid and was also a little disappointed. There was just no comparison for those prawns. My mouth waters as I write this.
The next morning we considered what to do with the rest of our days. It hadn’t rained so we knew the road out wouldn’t be worse than it was when we came in, we had some gas, and we’d heard about an eco lodge just north of Nacala which was about three hours drive from where we were. We’d heard Nacala Bay was beautiful and knowing we might not get back to Mozambique any time soon, wanted to see a little more of it. So we had breakfast and set off. On our way we stopped to see Nossa Senhora dos Remedies (Our Lady of the Remedies), the oldest actively used church in sub-Saharan Africa. It was built in 1579 for the Dominicans who had a convent on Mozambique Island, and I guess had a boat to cross over. It was only a couple of kilometers from where we were staying, completely isolated on this gorgeous piece of land by the water. It had a very european altarpiece and was in remarkable condition, I thought. The caretaker was there and George was communicating with him in Spanish. He gave us a little of the history and said they’d had an Easter mass there. That would have been an event to attend. Sorry I missed that! The only reason we knew about this church was that a couple we spoke with at dinner the night before mentioned it. It wasn’t in our guidebook, but was an incredible gem.
The road out wasn’t nearly as bad as it was driving in. It was still muddy, but nothing like the standing water we went through a couple of days earlier. We made it to the main road, then to the highway where we filled up the gas tank, vowing never to let it go below a half tank again. And off we went to a luxury lodge to splurge a little for the next three nights.
We never made it. Armed with a false sense of security with that full tank of gas and having navigated what we thought was the worst road we’d ever be on, we went forty kilometers, following the signs, toward Nuarro Lodge. Even thought each turnoff was marked by a sign, there was no distance on the sign and we were going by someone telling us it took them four hours from Mozambique Island. We were an hour closer than that, so we figured three hours, then add another one for good measure, and were sure we’d be there by early afternoon. Did that four-hour-person say be prepared with chains and a tow truck? No, she did not. We drove and drove and drove, never worried about getting stuck, but worried about puncturing something with the rocks and absence of parts of the actual road where it had been washed away. Every time we got through a rough patch we’d say, “Ok, there. We’re almost there. We must be close now. Yup! I can feel it! We’re almost there!” We’d say this based on nothing. No actual facts. Just a “feeling” which turns out was way more wishful thinking that an intuitive sense of where the destination was. It was getting late. We were glad we were staying for three nights as it would give us a chance to recover from this drive! Through villages and long stretches of nothingness, we asked a few people how much further and got vague responses or just an arm pointing. At four o’clock (it gets dark at 5:15) we got to a section of “road” that was completely impassible. The mud was about a meter deep and two guys were having a hard time pushing a motorcycle through it, and they were up off the road in a cornfield. People were trying to walk through it and couldn’t. George stopped driving and said, “We can’t make it through this.” I thought we had to be close enough to walk from there. We’d gone twenty kilometers past where we thought it would be. I thought if it was only another two kilometers we could walk it and leave the car there. George asked a couple guys how far to the lodge. They said between twenty and thirty kilometers! Walking was out of the question. We were defeated. We had no way to call the lodge, no way to get out if we got stuck, no food in the car, and no more optimism. (Refer to above proverb) George got back in the car and miraculously got it turned around. Here I’d been thinking I didn’t want to drive that road again for at least three days and now we had to do it immediately, mostly in the dark. Not good.
George is reading a book called Venture to the Interior, by Laurens Van Der Post. In it, the author talks about how colonialism has affected the people of various countries. The British didn’t care so much about Malawi. There was no port and no valuable natural resources, so there wasn’t much to exploit. He speculates that is why Malawians are so friendly and welcoming. Mozambique, on the other hand, got the shit kicked out of it by the Portuguese. Second only to Zanzibar, it was the major site for the brutal slave market. They’ve had a civil war in their recent past and the difficulty and expense of getting a visa has all made for a decline in tourism. The people weren’t exactly unfriendly, but it didn’t feel especially welcoming. We didn’t speak the language and it just didn’t feel as safe as in Malawi. We did not want to get stuck in a remote village being unable to communicate and felt a bit vulnerable. Everyone we had asked for directions had demanded money, not a common behavior in Malawi. We were focused on getting back to the main road, forty kilometers away, without incident. It took three hours, two in the pitch dark. Fortunately our car has great lights, including ones on the roof rack, so I’m sure we looked like a space ship going through these villages. We made it back to the incredibly busy port of Nacala by eight o’clock, desperate to find a place to stay. The traffic was ridiculous! Cars cutting us off, the road pocked with huge potholes, a few traffic lights which no one stopped at. We weren’t even sure what the road rules were! Huge trucks were taking up most of the narrow roads and we were tired and wanted to find shelter. George was still driving, having all he could do to see the road, so I was watching for a sign indicating a lodge, which I finally saw, and we turned out of the worst of the traffic. Another ten kilometers and I saw another sign that pointed to a dirt road which said, Libulula Lodge 2.1 kilometers. Finally! A sign that actually tells you something! And two point one kilometers later I had another JP2 moment when we arrived safely. It was a backpackers lodge, with an open restaurant and an available room for a reasonable rate, though, they could have named their price at that point. George said, “Let’s stay here three nights.” I said, “Let’s eat and sleep and make that decision in the morning when we can see what it looks like here.”
In the morning there was a huge tanker sitting outside our “ocean view” room and we took that as a sign to move on. They did have good wifi there, though, and I went online and found another eco lodge on a marine reserve only fifteen kilometers away! Perfect! We decided to have breakfast and set off. Do you think we could find the road to the eco lodge? No we could not. We spent two hours driving up and down the main road looking for the turnoff, asking everyone we could if they knew where the road was; no one had heard of the lodge. A bus driver sent us to a different lodge, where we asked at reception for the directions to the lodge we wanted (awkward). They didn’t know. We were about to give up. I thought maybe God did not want us to stay at a luxury lodge. We were arguing. George said that if we were going to argue why don’t we do it at a cheaper place and just spend the night where we were last night? I had to admit there was logic to that but wasn’t speaking to him so didn’t answer. We’d passed a sign for a restaurant/bar called the Thirsty Whale. I have a friend in Bar Harbor who owns a restaurant/bar by that same name, and I wanted to take a photo of it. Being lunch time at this point, we decided to go there, have lunch, regroup, and see if we could find someone who knew of Ossimba, the eco lodge, which I was starting to doubt existed.
The owner of the Thirsty Whale was a Zimbabwean (spoke English!) who was welcoming and personable and friendly as can be. He said, “You are welcome to stay here!” (awkward) as they had rooms as well and no one to occupy them. Tourism is really way down. Wow. But I told him we’d already made a reservation at this other place, and when I told him the name, knew exactly where it was. He said he’d been there that morning on a 17 kilometer run. (He was fit as well as friendly.) He drew us a detailed map as the road is completely unmarked through a village. Now, does that make sense? It didn’t to me. Why would you have a tourist destination that no one could find? Well, we learned most of the people staying at this place get picked up at the local airport and driven there. This wasn’t a place for travelers on a budget. We decided if we couldn’t find it within a half hour we’d go back to cheapville with oil tankers. But his map was perfect and we drove fifteen kilometers through more water, forded streams with washed-away bridges, and arrived at the most glorious luxury lodge imaginable. They were not expecting us. They hadn’t checked their email. But, there was no way I was getting back in that car. I didn’t care if we slept on the beach. But it was no problem, they ran around getting us tea, finding the proprietor who’d had a recent knee replacement and was recuperating, but very welcoming. We sipped tea, looking out at the ocean while they got our room ready and it was sublime. Ten exclusive bungalows were situated between mangroves, each with their own isolated beach facing out to India (I think). Oh my God, it was beautiful. And the room! We walked in and George said, “Ok. We are going to stop arguing.” it was glorious. Gorgeous snorkeling right outside our bungalow, attentive but not intrusive staff, all solar powered and built from natural materials, outdoor showers, plush cotton robes, the works. It also had a lovely bar and sitting/dining area with comfy couches and good wine. Kevin, the guy who built and owns it, is South African and was formerly a businessman in the wine industry. The wine was good. It was a fabulous way to end the trip and I’m glad we ended up there. We watched incredible storm clouds come in which made for a spectacular sunsets and we could see it raining right over the peninsula where Nuarro Lodge was located. If we had made it in there we would never have gotten out.
So, we’ve learned a few lessons and will not take our teeth out when traveling in Africa. We’ve got a new list of staples to keep in the car on our next road trip.
It’s been a busy week but it’s getting late and I think I’ll save those stories for next week.
Love to all,
Sunrise in Chocas