Me: “Meh, Maputo” Maputo: “Whatever.” Me: “Never want to leave!” Maputo: “Whatever.” (1,100 words).
We arrived in Maputo, Mozambique the other night. We bundled ourselves, our bicycles, our bags and my emotions off the sleeper train and crunched onto the gravel past the platform’s end. The train was long, and the first class sleeper passengers—us and the staff—were made to walk the rest of the way guided by the green lights bathing the station. Shock horror!
The station’s walls of coral rock and its retired steam engine took most of my attention as we found our way out, but there was also a Mozambican family huddled on a bench. They were waiting for a train or were using the bench to stay the night, I didn’t know which and suspected the latter. After a passing glance at them, I dwelled on how little writing I’d accomplished on all the trains we’d taken over the last two weeks. Four trains, where were all the blog posts?
But Maputo doesn’t have time for my problems and preferences. The next day, we found that its fish market of Lonely Planet Guidebook recommendation has moved from an old thatch complex to a new concrete structure. In its move it lost the atmosphere I’d hoped for. I guess it takes a lifetime of comfort to begrudge this upgrade to a more sanitary and organized market, at the expense of my idea of an Authentic African Market Experience.
I was also put off by the fishmonger’s assertiveness. It was hard to gawk at their remarkable variety of dead or suffocating sea life at my own pace when the mongers were trying to end a slow day—bad weather—with a few more sales. There were amputated barracuda and fish with blue fins that weren’t Bluefin Tuna and stunningly colourful crayfish. Heaps of herbs and whole coconuts and chilis, and I appreciated it all less than I’d like you to think. Outside, I quickly become irritated with the restaurant touts, unaccustomed to them after long stretches of time being lucky enough to access areas with few tourists. I held it against these Mozambicans for a little while.
The reason we even visited the fish market is, counterintuitively, that I arrived in Maputo without enthusiasm for being here. We took our bicycles out of the cargo carriage of the train, loaded them and cycled up Karl Marx (the street) to the hostel we hoped would have space. It did, as well a dogeared copy of the Mozambique Lonely Planet, 2010. I leafed through it on a rattan couch after we pitched our tents and felt humbled by the author’s palpable enthusiasm for Maputo and Mozambique. I had none of it.
My apathy became sadness. I wanted to earn a few insights about this place, to be excited. Have you read that Mark Manson post that talks about how motivation follows the action, instead of the opposite? I tried that. I coaxed myself outside and down the Avenida Marginal before I was excited about it. And the more I see of Maputo, the more I want to see. What a cool city.
Here’s the thing: Maputo doesn’t care about this either! It doesn’t need me to have the amazing time I’m now having. The fat ladies punching quantities of warm, fresh, cheap Portuguese baguettes into the bakery cash register don’t need my business. Their answer to my enthusiasm and stuttering Portuguese is ambivalence.
On our way back from the fish market, we cycled past the AFECC GLORIA HOTEL and were almost offended by how garish it is, its red and beige and gold and lion statues and acronyms and flags. I laughed at the hotel and at the Chinese exercise machines across the highway from it. I have the feeling that if it could, Maputo would laugh back at me. It would mock me for my ignorance about its relationship with China, and my cliched opinions about what is garish. Then it would have spit a little more sand in my face as I fought the headwind that slowed our progress back along Avenida Marginal towards the city centre. The wind was coming off the turgid Indian Ocean, and we rode close enough to the shore to see broken glass on the beach. I cycled, wobbling. The airborne sand stung my face and I kind of enjoyed it.
We followed the Marginal along its coastline trace to its terminus in town. We heard live music, just like the guidebook author urged us to pursue in Maputo—#5 in the glossy photograph section of HIGHLIGHTS, if I may make fun of myself. Singing wafted over from a bar patio, and when I peered inside a man at a table smiled at me.
We took a patio table that would have been occupied by locals had it remained empty for another hour. The place filled up as Evan and his mom Anne and I settled in with 2M Beer, white wine, more flour-dusted bread, a menu that we stumbled over in our translations from the Portuguese. Tripe, olives and cheese, ham sandwich, steak nail…
The man who had smiled at me was part of a group celebrating a woman’s birthday. Many drinks later, she danced on turquoise heels as Parabéns Pra Você was belted out to her. We clapped along enthusiastically with them, and this didn’t seem at all necessary. Her table was deep into Absolut and Amarula and Jack Daniels and red wine, they were glowing and loud.
Ragged boys trying to hawk snacks rested their cardboard boxes of Doritos and gum on the potted plants separating them from the patio customers. They were half-heartedly—or was it just politely—trying to sell them to us patrons, but once the Portuguese football match was on the pull-down screen, the boys were more enthusiastic about that.
If I had walked up to the front to the band and their microphones, an improvised Portuguese speech written on a napkin, I would have told everyone that I was shocked and intrigued at the mix of skin tones, that the music was great, that they seemed to know how to live and love each other. In response, I think they would have done the Maputo thing. They wouldn’t have let my opinions and moods and desires make the slightest difference to their Saturday night party.
And if that’s true, I like that confidence about Maputo and its people…and they don’t care about that, either.