Monday, 12 August 2013

Ilha de Moçambique diary




The dhow caught the six o’clock tide and after a silent, pellucid journey through mangrove swamps we spent three and a half hours waiting in a bus shelter opposite a baobab tree of

Ibo diary




Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world and one of the most expensive to visit. I met lots of backpackers, whom I admired very much (they are almost the only tourists I can tolerate but they call themselves travellers), passing through Mozambique from Malawi by bus, hitch-hiking and dhow. Quite a few were young women travelling
alone. But I simply did not have time. So I paid €350 for two internal flights, one from Maputo to Pemba, the nearest town to Ibo and one from Nampula, the nearest town to Ilha de Moçambique, back to Maputo. I was outraged at this price until I was told I had done very well to get such very cheap tickets. In any case, intermittent fighting has broken out again between FRELIMO and RENAMO in central Mozambique and bussing across the country is no longer advised.

My first childhood holiday abroad was a package holiday in Ostend with a plane that left from Southend airport. In those days people of my grandmother’s generation regularly said things like  ‘Wild horses wouldn’t make me go abroad.’ Yet even though mass tourism had only ruined the Costa Brava, Costa Blanca and Algarve at that stage, I worked out while I was still a schoolboy that the only really undiscovered countries in Europe were behind the Iron Curtain. In the 1980s I wanted to visit Maoist Albania to see Europe’s only untouched coastline, but never did. Now people are travelling as far as Northern Mozambique to see untouched coastline. Southern Mozambique – from the tourist’s point of view a separate country from Northern Mozambique – is resorts for white South Africans. Most of the African coast is beach resorts. 

From Pemba there are many ways to get to the island of Ibo involving minibuses and dhows and the best way is the weekly post-boat. Drivers charge $250 even though the average monthly wage is less than $50. I again chose the easy option which cost $220 and took twenty minutes: a light plane that sailed close to lovely desert islands. My fellow travellers were three very polite and virginal French children in their mid teens, who had travelled from Johannesburg via Maputo that morning and were travelling to meet their parents in Lugenda, which I misheard as Uganda. Their well-bred innocence made the journey seem like chapter 1 of an Enid Blyton story, except that in Enid Blyton foreigners are usually smugglers or gunrunners not heroes and heroines. I felt, dear reader, as if I were in an adventure, by which word I of course have in mind the adventures Enid Blyton’s or Arthur Ransome's children have.

No one from my guest lodge was on the airstrip (a simple field) in Ibo from my hotel to meet me. Entirely my fault. I should have asked them to be. The plane deposited me on a bare field and all there was in sight apart from grass was an enormous four-by-four and a large white South African called John who offered me a lift. He gave an almost imperceptible nod to the black man beside him who took my bag. This seemed like the start of a film. Real life only seems real, for some reason, when it resembles a film or book. I wonder why.

John was retired from the travel business and helping his friend who owns the Ibo Lodge (double rooms $400 a night, all-inclusive). He said something memorable. ‘Travel is part of the entertainment business.’

The Miti Miwiri 

The Miti Miwiri on the edge of the village of Ibo on a sunny afternoon (20 degrees Celsius) – a large house built of stone and dark wood around a central courtyard – was inviting and exuded a calm welcome. Friendly guests and instant camaraderie. A lovely young man called Dimo who said Joerg the owner was away for a day shopping in Pemba. The wide terrace outside my room, overlooking the little town. A single room there  cost me $65 a night, a month's wage in Mozambique, but worth it for what turned out to be a very happy, buzzy, comfortable place, albeit without hot water.

The town is a ghost town. The guide books say that it was an important Portuguese settlement that fell into decay after the 1890s but in fact it was deserted by the Portuguese and Indians in 1975 at independence (Indians from the Portuguese enclave, Goa, colonised the Portuguese Empire just as Indians colonised the British Empire).

The long beautiful coastline that reminded me of the Danube Delta. The same detritus of plastic bottles and rubbish fringing the shore and the same broken buildings. But the Danube, though it has some wonderful desert islands, scotching hot in August too, does not have mangroves.


Ibo is eery and something about the place is unhappy, as ghost towns are. It now consists of ruined stone buildings that did not look much older than a hundred years in most cases and the straw houses where Africans live. They number about 4000. The stone houses are starting to be renovated for tourism but only a very few are so far. So this is the time to go, dear reader. 


The Quirimbas islands are a coral reef. The islands are where the coral extrudes above the surface of the ocean. Ibo is the only island that gets tourists in any numbers and the only one that gets people who do not land from planes. It does not have good swimming, not because of the coral but because it is surrounded by mangrove swamps. This adds to the impression given by the ruined buildings that I have walked into an episode of Scooby Doo. There are no particularly good beaches but the island is great for walking though I was shamefully lazy and sauntered rather than walked.



For sights it has an eighteenth century fortress and church, though Mass is rarely said these days in the church. The Africans are almost all Muslim and were fasting when I arrived for Ramadan, the Muslim equivalent of lent. Eid, the day when Ramadan ends, was much celebrated by people going from door to door dancing, singing and having too much to drink. I was invited to a lunchtime and evening party. Though even in Ramadan drinking had not been noticeable by its absence. Many Mozambiquans are alcoholics, I was told, who drink very cheap industrial alcohol. The Africans in the village seem happy and I think and was told that they are but the boredom of village life must be killing.

Eid


Of course like every good bourgeois I am looking for somewhere authentic and untouched but the sad truth is that Ibo, like Ilha, has just enough tourism to make it fun. Four places to stay plus two camp sites, four restaurants (two pretty good). The best is owned by a Frenchman called Stephan but the elegant Ibo Lodge is good too, inexpensive and  with a wonderful ocean view. The gilded people who stay at the Ibo lodge are more grown-up than the people who stay at the cheaper places and less friendly, because they had purchased an all-inclusive package holiday where luxury was they keynote, not adventure. One of them, a nervous businessman with an attractive younger wife, mentioned to me that he had a friend who owned a nearby island. This was the kind of place for married couples and possibly honeymoon couples. I had the feeling that I was in a Saint story. Why does my mind teem with such unliterary literary parallels?

The Ibo Lodge, incidentally, is by no means the most expensive hotel in the archipelago. One place costs $900 a night.




The island was crowded when I went in early August and my lodge and the Ibo lodge each had 18 guests. The island’s total tourist population probably numbered fifty or more and they were mostly friendly interesting and intelligent. Some gathered for a drink early evening in the courtyard of Miti Miwiri which felt like a subdued cocktail party. It was all instant friends and great fun, my dears, or would have been but for acute sunburn on the backs of my calves after walking for three hours across the mangrove swamps to the next island at low tide.

Two Portuguese factory managers, both born in Angola, told me that nothing had happened after the Portuguese left until Mozambique opened her economy to foreigners in recent years. This is not quite true though as under the dictatorship literacy rates were low in Metropolitan Portugal and Mozambique has registered a huge increase in literacy. A very bright Austrian couple who work for an NGO in Nampula told me that the Portuguese did nothing for the Africans. My own hunch is that the history is written by people who dislike colonialism on principle and that FRELIMO rule was a disaster for the Africans as well for the whites and Asians who fled. The Austrians said that Nampula is a key link in the heroin trail that starts in Pakistan and leads to South Africa. Much of the drugs trade goes through the hands of local Pakistani businessmen who have recently settled in Mozambique. Several people told me that the Asians are much disliked for their commercial acumen by the Africans.





Joerg, who owns half the Miti Miwiri, - he has a partner in Panama who also runs it, one year on, one year off - is a German in his late 30s, who, after ten years in investment banking decided he was not fulfilled so he got on his bike with his then girlfriend and set off across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. In Ibo in 2007, before tourism of any sort had started, although the owner of the Ibo Lodge was preparing to open and he found the place he wanted to live. He bought the title to the ruined house from an African woman who had acquired squatter's rights after the Indian owner had fled in 1975. He forgets whether he paid $1,200 or $1,500 and he had spent many happy years rebuilding the place. He now has a 'local wife' on the island and he nodded in the direction in which the Africans live. 

'He chose a good time to get out of investment banking', said my newly made backpacker friend Maeve, who will be starting work in a bank in Munich in a few short weeks.

I know I have quoted this before but these lines of Philip Larkin came to mind:


"Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,

As epitaph: He chucked up everything

And just cleared off,

And always the voice will sound

Certain you approve

This audacious, purifying,

Elemental move.


For the next stage in my journey, click here.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Maputo diary

    

What to do on a Sunday night in Maputo? I am advised not to walk around after dark, not for fear of criminals but of the police. They stop foreigners looking for bribes.

Maputo has the old British provincial Sunday feeling and that introverted Portuguese quality but I think I like it. 

I had a very fine buffet lunch at the famous Hotel Polana, including a wonderful fish which